Entrepreneurial Leadership

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-by Matt Leedham

In my experience coaching entrepreneurs, I find that leadership styles vary widely. However, most leadership styles seem to start out the same. At first, most entrepreneurs are hard-charging workaholics that demonstrate hard work by example. They go and go and go, and push their employees to do the same. At first, this is an effective way to lead a startup or small business – foot on the gas pedal with no end in sight.

Over time though, this model for leadership begins to break down and take its toll on both the business owner and the employees. All of a sudden, life is out of balance, the business depends on the owner to succeed, and unhappiness ensues. Without exception, the first two things that suffer as the business grows are personal relationships and health. This is usually when entrepreneurs begin to seek help and may start to ask me more about what coaching can do.

Here is an excerpt from the Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s (EO) award-winning magazine, Octane. This is from an article called The Push/Pull Theory of Leadership, written by a true entrepreneur out of Cincinnati, Jamie Gerdsen. Jamie owns Apollo, a successful heating and cooling company, and I’ve gotten to know him quite well over the last year.

When I launched my business, my focus was on simply growing the company. The success of my business was defined solely on my ability to push the company and my employees for results. I believed that leaders always outworked those around them, but when growth occurred and my sphere of influence diminished, the pushing was no longer effective. My company’s success was limited due to my ineffective leadership style. Worst of all, I became everything I never wanted to be: a self-absorbed, busy beta thinker that was unwilling to trust those around him to pull his family, company and self to the next level.

In pursuit of a new leadership style—one that enabled me to split time between my work and home—I revisited notes from EO learning events, Forum, Universities and miscellaneous journals. I reached out to the best leaders I could find. I hired an executive coach. I even attended the EO Leadership Academy. Throughout it all, I began to realize that the strongest leaders were not pushers; rather, they empowered their employees by allowing them to pull leaders along. It occurred to me that I was pushing my team to the point where they could not, or did not want, to keep up with my pace. As a result, I was compensating for their efforts, leaving me remiss of a home life.

With this knowledge in hand, I came up with what I call the “push/pull theory” of leadership. This theory can be seen in competitive rowing. I spent 12 years rowing, and found that the fastest boats were manned by crews that pulled together. When I was thinking through my leadership challenges, I realized that I wasn’t allowing my employees to pull the “company boat.” To improve, I began to really listen to what was happening. I discovered that training for leadership was low or non-existent. The first directive of my theory was to allow the leaders in the organization to lead. The second was to allow my team to make mistakes and learn from them through daily, weekly and monthly huddles. Finally, I had to stay patient, which is still pretty challenging. By spending more time listening and less time telling people what to do, I was able to revamp my entire business.

Not surprisingly, Jamie goes on to tell us that his company grew by 30% and he’s spending much more time at home building significant relationships with his wife and children. Going back to the Energy Leadership Model, Jamie shifted from Level 2/3 to Level 5 and is reaping the benefits.

Level 2 leadership is based in conflict. It’s not uncommon for leaders to push hard to get results because up until then, that’s all that worked. Level 3 leadership takes responsibility for the situation and builds in coping mechanisms to make things work. This is the level of “good enough.” But as you can see, it really wasn’t “good enough” for Jamie and his family. That’s when the transition to Level 5 occurred. He began to realize there was another way. As entrepreneur, he knew there was a solution here – a way for everyone to win.

In the article, Jaime calls it a “leadership paradox.” It’s true – it can be counterintuitive. What he discovered was that the more he could let go, the more the company would grow. He allowed his team to grow by giving his leaders the opportunity to lead. Leading gave his leaders and opportunity to grow both personally and professionally. And all of this gave Jamie the opportunity to grow his personal relationships. Talk about a win/win/win!

How are you leading? At work? At home? Look for the opportunity to let others grow. You will grow in their growth, and everyone will win.

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