Conscious Leadership Makes the Difference for Startups, Too

Startup success these days depends at least as much on heart as head.

Startup success these days depends at least as much on heart as head.

Working in the startup world can be confusing, tiring and disheartening — all too often it’s you and your tiny team vs. the world of entrenched incumbents and uncaring customers. And while it’s tempting to buckle down and work harder to push your way through the obstacles, there is another way.

That other way is looking inside, to the conscious leadership values of trust, connection and mindful attention to pull greater results from your self, your team and your customers. And if that’s not enough, you can do all of this while expending less energy and building better feelings. Here are three heart-based moves to surviving — and thriving — in the disruptive world of 21st century business:


Fragile organizations are based on fear: fear of failure, fear of people not following orders, fear of displeasing the boss, etc. The result is a system of control — rules, hierarchies, procedures that give us a feeling of power and therefore (we believe) power over the outcome: “if everyone follows the rules, we will succeed.”

But not only is this attempt to control fear by controlling people costly (decision-making slows, bureaucracy increases, creativity and adaptability decline), it’s also an illusion: really, we have no control (just ask the folks at Borders how all their hierarchy and rules worked out).

The antidote to fear is trust: trust that if you have the right people, give them the proper resources and enlist them in attaining your shared goals, they will do their level best to deliver. Trust increases innovation by freeing people to think about the best way to do things, rather than worrying about what the boss will think. Trust is an essential quality in small start-up teams where speed and initiation are critical to survival.

Southwest Airlines trusts its flight attendants to meet the basic goals and requirements of the pre-flight safety briefing. The result is entertaining, memorable and even more effective safety messages than competitors’ canned scripts. (Few fliers will forget a rubber chicken hanging from the oxygen mask panel.)

Authentic connection

Authentic teams share their hopes and fears, are open about their disagreements and doubts, and fully reveal their feelings. This way of relating – so different from the fixed smile of “professionalism” – builds resilience, engagement and commitment. These teams function more efficiently because they don’t waste their effort on drama, gossip or politics.

Empower Public Relations in Chicago has been the testing ground for what its CEO calls “the no-gossip zone.” Instead of bureaucratic rivalries, petty politics and personal prejudice, the team here practices the art of candor. The result is fully informed discussion where everything is on the table; there are few surprises; employee engagement is high.

Leading from behind

Smart leaders take their cues from the people closest to the action — the front line folks who are actually making the widgets, calling on the customers, serving the food. These are the early warning systems in any organization: the saleswoman who hears about the upstart competitor from a customer; the developer who sees exactly where the process can be improved; the waiter who tries out new ways to delight diners and sees the results reflected in his tips.

It can be hard for a founder, fueled by original insight and ideas, to let go of his or her conviction enough to allow others modify, elaborate or even criticize that founding vision. But finding the balance between zeal and openness is essential to fitting a business to the emerging reality of the marketplace.

At Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., the leaders supplied the initial vision and ever since it’s been the employees who have turned it into a reality that today comprises a community of mutually supporting businesses — from a bakery to a corporate training service — run by workers who came up through the ranks (and came up with the ideas). It’s one of the most successful delis on earth.

These three moves — which are all about heart, not head — will make you and your organization rapidly flexible, resilient and innovative, exactly the moves needed to surf the internet wave instead of being swept away by it.

If you want to dive even deeper into these waters, join us for a two-hour workshop Jan. 28th at DUMBO Startup Lab in Brooklyn, NYC. More information and signup here. And if you want an even deeper dive, check out the work of my colleagues at the Conscious Leadership Group.

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