Startup Leadership: Going from Founder to Leader

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Jakob Danelund

Researcher, Copenhagen Business School

Jakob has been researching startup leadership. From his research, he knows that startup leadership is something different from leadership in a more established organisation. 

Nima Sophia Tisdall

Nima Sophia Tisdall

Founder, Blue Lobster

Founder, part of Forbes 30 under 30 and European leader at Obama Foundation. Nima has grown her team and experienced first-hand the importance of Startup leadership.



01   Leadership is a skill

Being a good leader becomes increasingly more important as your company begins to grow. The sooner you realize that the sooner you can start building the culture that can support the growth of the company short as well as long term. 

02   You are a role model

You need to understand that you as a leader, are a role model for your co-workers and employees. You are setting the example and building the culture in your business through your behaviour whether you are aware of it or not. 

03   Startup leadership is not easy - but it is important

Startup leadership is not easy, and not something you are an expert in from day one. It is a big responsibility, it’s complex and you will learn and develop continuously throughout your founder journey. Start by taking your first steps today. 

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In conventional leadership, your role is often well-defined and usually, you have developed into being a leader through a series of organizational leaps. Starting out as a self-leading specialist, developing into a project manager, then team lead, at some stage you may become a manager of managers, maybe even CEO and eventually into a board position. In startup leadership, you have all of the roles from the beginning and at the same time.

In a startup, you wear a multitude of caps all from the get-go. You’re the CEO when you form the company, perhaps you are the only employee, thereby also making you the only product specialist and project manager for yourself and any gig workers or volunteers you may involve. This is a radically different onboarding into the leadership role and why Centre for Owner-Managed Businesses decided to research which tools could help leaders of startups. Here is what they found out:

If we look at what constitutes good startup leadership, it can be split into two parts. One part focuses on becoming a legitimized leader. This part focuses on you and how you step into the leadership role. How you act and inspire.

The second part focuses on motivating the team. How you respond to the basic needs of your team members and provide guidance in the best possible way.

Startup leadership is not easy and it will take practice, but it is crucial if you want to develop your business. You have to constantly look inward and be ready to develop. One thing is sure though if you don’t work with this - you’re doing yourself and your team a disservice, as unhandled founder stress and Laissez-faire leadership will negatively impact your team and their performance. On the other hand, You, as a startup leader can affect the teamwork, performance, commitment, and work-life balance of your entire team.