If you’ve ever had the thought that you weren’t a good leader or didn’t know how to be one, you’re not alone.
Business owners rarely go into business for themselves in order to become the leader of a company. In truth, most are looking to secure a “job” where they can provide their product or service free of a boss. This orientation—the Technician’s mentality—inevitably creates a business built around their own ability to produce results. It’s the orientation of the vast majority of owner-operated businesses, and it has obvious limitations. You alone can only get so much done. You can only stretch so far. You can only produce the results that you can produce.
If you have a vision for your business that extends beyond your own personal reach, then you need to become the leader that your business demands you be. You have to become the kind of person people want to follow. Your vision, values, character and communication have to mean something to people, and you also have to become comfortable with that kind of attention and responsibility.
So, how do you get there from where you are right now?
Becoming a leader is a journey. It doesn’t matter where you begin, how good you think you are at leading your team, or how much you understand about leadership right now. What matters is your commitment to making your own very personal transition from Technician to leader. In my experience, it’s one of the most worthwhile challenges and rewards of owning and building a business.
I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned during my own leadership journey that are entirely consistent with what we’ve learned at EMyth through our work with business owners over the past several decades.
Hard-won leadership lessons
I got my first taste of leadership at EMyth in 1982, at the age of 29. In retrospect, I had no idea what it meant to lead—though I certainly thought I did. My self-perception was that I already had leadership qualities: I was determined, insightful, passionate, results-oriented, willing to make difficult decisions, and committed to EMyth’s mission to “transform small business worldwide, one business owner at a time.”
What I didn’t realize, however, was that I had very little understanding of who I was. I was utterly disconnected from my feelings and my needs, and this made it almost impossible for me to feel my real impact on other people.
This showed up in painful ways. I was easily triggered by my employees’ mistakes. In turn, they felt shamed by my anger and by the judgments that I too often expressed when other employees were present. Most respected me, but they didn’t trust me. I could see what was happening. I wanted to be different, but I didn’t know how to change.
Despite my apparent strengths, my buried insecurities kept me living in the shadow of my then-husband and partner Michael E. Gerber, the founder of EMyth. I was unable to stand for what really mattered to me when it was most important, all out of a hidden fear that I didn’t know anything at all.
For several years, my strengths created forward movement for EMyth and my unresolved conflicts limited its success. My inability to get out of my own way continued to plague me. In 1996, a year after I became the president of EMyth, I retained an executive coach to help me sort out my struggles in leading people and navigating my partnership.
During the next three years, and with my coach’s help, I dedicated myself to discovering who I was, what I wanted, and how I was impacting people in both productive and unproductive ways. I started to notice a world of feelings that were foreign to me and needs that I didn’t know I had. While it wasn’t always easy or comfortable, I started to feel like myself for the first time in my life. Over time, I discovered the deep care I had for people. I started to develop patience with my staff as well as with myself, and I came to understand the source of my impatience.
In 1999, I was able to retire from the day-to-day operations of the company, having created a business that didn’t depend on me to be there. My leadership journey, however, was just beginning. Whether I’ve served as EMyth’s CEO or solely as its Board Chair, I’ve never stopped discovering what it means to lead.
As I’ve found deeper and deeper layers of myself, my vision for EMyth has clarified, my ability to make the best decisions on EMyth’s behalf has sharpened, and my communication about what’s most important has become simpler and more direct. All this makes it easier for people to get behind our vision and values, and to see their work at the company as a means to achieve their own growth goals.
The four essential qualities of leadership
My personal experience (and the experience of our clients over many years) has shown me that the ability to lead others towards a shared vision is a skill that business owners can not only develop, but also love.
In our view, these are the fundamental qualities of effective leadership:
As the leader of your business, you’re the one everyone in your company looks to for cues about how to behave. There’s no getting around it. How you think, feel and act in your business sets the tone for everyone.
If you don’t value your team's input, you’ll discourage them from making meaningful contributions to the growth of your company.
If you don’t set clear expectations, you’ll create frustration and confusion.
If you’re overly critical, you’ll make people afraid to speak up or take risks.
If you don’t express what your company needs from your people in a way they can hear, you’ll deprive everyone of the understanding of what makes your company special and their work important.
If you don’t continually question your assumptions, you’ll miss seeing your blind spots and the adverse impact they’re having on your company.
If you see your people as the cause of your company’s stagnation, you’ll miss the real opportunity your business is giving you to learn about yourself.
Your business is a reflection of you. If you can’t see how you’re influencing it, you’ll either feel at a loss to change it, blame others for what it’s not giving you, or both.
The more you discover about yourself and your impact on people—not just your strengths and weaknesses, but your motivations, values, communication habits, emotional triggers, the feelings that you’re comfortable addressing versus the ones you avoid—the more you’ll grow as a leader. And your growth will directly impact the growth of your company. To create a great company, your business has to reflect the best of who you are. You have to lead the way.
The most entrepreneurial aspect of leadership is the drive towards a picture of a business that works. Leaders take people someplace. If you’re clear about where you’re leading your people and committed to your vision, you’ve probably noticed a pretty constant inner tension between where your business is today and where you want it to be. This tension, which comes from your ability to see every aspect of your business today that doesn’t match your vision, can become one of your most useful leadership tools.
At first, you might see this tension as a source of disappointment, resentment and blame. But if you take the time to understand and manage it, this tension can become “healthy frustration.” It’ll inspire your daily decisions about the next steps to take to close the gap, and inform your communication with your team about what’s most important now and why.
You can never speak to your team too often about where the company is going and what it’s going to take from everyone in order to get there. The entrepreneurial tension that lives in you all the time can become your vehicle for inspiring your people to help achieve the vision that means so much to you.
Every adult makes thousands of decisions on any given day. Every one of them has consequences, even though some are obviously more impactful than others. The consequences of our decisions accumulate and eventually define our life.
For a business owner, the choices you make can mean the difference between the life you’ve always dreamed of, and an unsatisfying one. They’re the difference between a business that serves customers the way you believe they should be served and one that leaves customers disinclined to come back, and between a company culture that reflects your values and one that's shaped by the whims of the people you happen to hire.
Leaders understand that their choices matter. They have the ability to discriminate between the choices that’ll bring them closer to their company vision, and those that won’t. They have the ability to recognize when a choice might make sense or feel good in the moment but won’t serve the company's best interests in the long run. They have the ability to prioritize seemingly competing interests of their own at any given moment.
This kind of discernment forges a leader’s path to success.
It’s not easy to describe what it means for a leader to be authentic; words like “genuine” or “real” don’t make things much clearer. Perhaps “sincere” comes a little closer. The best way to understand authenticity is in terms of how your people react emotionally to your communication. Whether your people are aware of it or not, they’re reading and responding to their sense of your authenticity all the time.
An authentic leader makes it easy for people to relax, and trust the company and its leadership. Your people want to feel that you say what you mean and you mean what you say. They want to know that your words are congruent with what you’re feeling. If you say that something doesn’t bother you, but your people can feel resentment or contempt in your tones, you’re likely to create anxiety and mistrust. Repeated experiences of anxiety and mistrust are unlikely to move people in the direction in which you’d like to lead them.
Authenticity is how you express who you are (a function of your self-awareness), where you’re taking your people (a function of the clarity of your vision), and how you’ll get there (a function of the discerning choices you make) in a way that brings more life to everyone your business touches.
Leading your team so they’re inspired to follow you requires a real commitment to self-inquiry and understanding how you impact people. It requires a willingness to accept the sober truth that your business will only change when you do.
That’s good news though: Your business will grow as you become the leader it demands of you. You may never have thought about it in these terms before, but taking on this challenge to become the owner your business requires can also be a labor of love.