Startup Leadership: Going from Founder to Leader




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 important of Startup leadership.



01   Leadership is a skill

As the company grows the more important it is that you are a good leader more than a good marketeer or product builder. The earlier you start being aware of this, the sooner you start building the culture that can support the growth of the company short term as well as long term.

02   You are a role model

What you need to understand is that you are setting the role model example and building the culture in your business by your actions and behavior no matter if 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 become an expert in from day one. It is big and it is complex, and you continue to learn and develop continiously in your founder journey, but you can take the first step already today. 

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In conventional leadership your role is often very well defined and most often 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 with you as the only employee, thereby also making you the only and main 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 this is why we at center for owner-managed businesses decided to research which tools could help leaders of startups. Here is what we found out:

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

And a 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 teamwork, performance, commitment, and work-life balance of your entire team.