Forget hero entrepreneurs. Here’s how to be a vulnerable visionary

Image credit: Superbaby Sweater by Anneheathen on flickr

The hero entrepreneur. The all-powerful, all-knowing visionary leader. The founder who can apparently see the future and knows exactly what customers want. They alone can forge the path to success.

We’re done with that myth. They’ve never truly existed. Even the hero entrepreneur’s hero entrepreneur Steve Jobs failed many times. And Apple’s big breakthrough with the iconic colourful iMac which kick-started the company’s revival? That was Jobs’ colleague Jony Ive’s creation.

How often do you hear people today say…

“We have a shared vision.”

“We believe in collective responsibility.”

And the retro classic, “There’s no I in team.”

Now that sounds all lovely and post-modern. The antidote to the individualistic hero rubbish. Well…

Confession: I find all this group-centred shared vision talk just as nauseating as the hero entrepreneur myth.

Let’s be clear: Groups are wonderful things. A system can be greater than the sum of its parts. It’s beautiful to consider that none of us are truly separate and instead are part of an unbroken wholeness. No one of us is smarter than all of us. Sharing’s caring. I love all that.

But it’s a mistake to simply reject the hero entrepreneur myth and go to the opposite extreme. We need to move on from the current trend towards ‘shared vision’ as the new solution to real creativity and collaboration if we want to realise big, bold ideas.

Realising big ideas in the world requires individuals, and deep connections between them. It’s not just about hero individuals OR just about groups.

It’s not about truly decentralised networks either because there’s a special role to play for one key individual. This role is different to what we might call ‘leadership’. Rather, it’s the wholly creative role of holding a vision and taking responsibility for its realisation.

It’s popular today to talk about this creative role being distributed within a group or network. I haven’t seen any convincing evidence for that. In every case where an initiative thrives over the long-term and a vision is coming to life, you can identify an individual at the heart of the creative process. This happens at the level of individual projects and at the global level of the whole initiative. This is going on even if there’s no formal acknowledgement of them playing this role. It exists separately from the official organisation chart. Take an honest look and you will find it.

This role starts with the originating founder who takes the first risk to begin the process of realising an idea, and can be passed on down a line of succession for many years.

The key to success in this role is not trying to play the hero entrepreneur, or swinging to the opposite extreme and making it all about groups or networks. The best creative founders are vulnerable visionaries instead.

This is a different breed of founder altogether. Let’s look at some of their characteristics.

These founders look inwardly at their own unmet needs. They begin with a yearning to change something, to create something, because DAMMIT, they can’t live with the idea of it not happening.

Underneath all of the creativity it is the unmet need of the founder. It’s personal and revealing. The creative initiative exposes their unmet need to the world. They are vulnerable.

This is different to what you’ll hear from many founders. They articulate their idea as being all about helping some other group of people to meet a need.

My colleague Charles has taught me a lot about putting needs at the centre of the creative process. He always says the problem with focussing just on the needs of others is that it excludes the founder and their own need. It’s like saying ‘I’m OK, I’m just going to help those people over there who I think are not OK.’ It sounds heroic but there’s a lack of self empathy. Even the seemingly most altruistic and compassionate acts start with a need of the person performing the act. Without a need, conscious or not, nobody ever acts.

Since the initiative is rooted in their own need, a vulnerable visionary takes responsibility for it. They know that nobody else can take responsibility for it, nor can the responsibility be shared.

We imagine hero entrepreneurs having big solo moments of inspiration then telling their followers what must be done. Vulnerable visionaries are different.

Their primary task is listening. They listen to all of the information which comes to them. From colleagues, from literature, from nature, and always listening inwardly, continuing to tune into their own need.

Listening, wide open with many inputs, but channeled through one person, is the source of a creative vision.

All of that listening works towards moments where clarity over the next step emerges. But this isn’t like the cocky confidence of the hero entrepreneur. My colleague Peter Koenig who originated the key ideas I’m presenting here, says the chronic state of someone in this role is doubt. There is so much information and so many possible next steps. It’s a reassuring thought to know this doubt is completely normal and healthy. Working with this natural doubt is another part of the founder’s vulnerability.

Until clarity comes, the vulnerable visionary learns to do nothing but continue to listen and tune into the need.

When they’re clear about the next step, it’s an embodied feeling not just an intellectual understanding. You will have had moments of clarity like this yourself. As Koenig says, ‘When you know you really know.’ Because it’s based on meeting your need — something that belongs to you alone.

This doesn’t mean they know the next step will be a success. Experimentation and failure are part of the creative process. Being clear about which risks to take is what matters.

Vulnerable visionaries don’t coerce or consensus-seek. Instead, they ask for help. They ask for information, guidance, ideas and practical help taking steps to help them get clear then make the idea real. They’re also clear about what help they don’t need. Any ‘help’ which doesn’t contribute towards meeting their need becomes a nuisance.

Just as they begin with their own needs, their collaborations connect with the needs of the people helping them. ‘Help me if it also meets a need for you’. It’s a consensual, natural relationship.

Vulnerable visionaries create space for others to take responsibility for realising part of the overall idea. This forms a hierarchy as the overall idea breaks down into its constituent ideas and those ideas themselves break down into ever more specific parts of the big picture.

The magic happens when you have other vulnerable visionaries taking responsibility for every branch. Exactly the same principles apply all the way through.

Don’t mistake this creative hierarchy for a traditional management hierarchy. This isn’t about power over people, but acknowledging the order people joined an originating founder and the responsibility they have taken for helping to realise the idea.

The big trap for a vulnerable visionary is falling prey to a phenomenon I call the tyranny of the humble founder.

This happens when a founder succeeds in developing a creative initiative in large part due to their humble, vulnerable way of being. It creates an environment that other people are drawn to, and a creative hierarchy naturally forms, seemingly effortlessly. So far so good.

But the humble nature of the founder can lead to a denial of their special role in taking responsibility for the overall initiative and the fact it is intimately connected to their personal need. “It’s not about me — it’s our initiative.” Of course this is true in many ways — they couldn’t have done it alone and acknowledging the enormous contributions of others is important.

The error is to mistakenly think that the initiative/company/organisation is the main thing, and not seeing that the whole thing is really a process to realise an idea to meet a need which first came from them.

Time and again, creative initiatives that start so clear and flowing fall victim to this effect and gradually descend into attrition and confusion. This downward state inflicts cruelty on everyone who joined to help the founder. That’s the tyranny.

So to founders everywhere, my advice is this: Keep tuning into your need. Take responsibility for the process of realising it. Listen to all of the information and wait to get clear on the next step and then take it. Allow a creative hierarchy to naturally emerge to help you. And don’t stop until you’re done.

Tom Nixon is on a learning journey exploring with founders how they can step into the creative role of the vulnerable visionary to realise big, meaningful ideas in the world. If you’d like to collaborate, get in touch.



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Tom Nixon

Researching and working with founders to realise big ideas and keep the startup passion forever.