When do I need to start being a leader? It’s a question I hear often from entrepreneurs. The answer is simple: Sooner than you think.

You start leading as soon as someone starts following. In a brand-new company, the very act of engaging someone else in your cause (whether enlisting the aid of a co-founder or hiring your first person, paid or not) is a clear signal that you are now in a leadership role. 

An entrepreneur with the founding vision of an organization – no matter what his or her official title may be -- will always be looked upon to provide an ongoing explanation of that vision. This act of explaining, of making sense of things, is a core element of leadership.

Some entrepreneurs don’t want the burden of leadership. Others are afraid of it, or don’t know what to do. Some want to have wholly collaborative companies that require only an abbreviated form of leadership. Others hope to have someone else be the leader, or that leadership will not be necessary until the company is bigger, profitable, or has more products – that leadership will somehow wait to start.

But the moment that your solo enterprise becomes the work of two, you receive from this other person a form of permission and expectation to provide leadership.  And you have an obligation to step up to the challenge.

For some entrepreneurs, this means stepping into a formal leadership role (such as CEO or a head of a function.)  For others, it involves remaining an individual contributor, or a serving in a non-executive management position.  However, for all first-time entrepreneurs it requires the recognition that you must provide a specific kind of presence and direction to your new organization.

Especially in a startup or early-stage business, people gravitate to the founding entrepreneur because there is often little more to the organization than this visionary and her or his vision.  As the organization grows, people will want, and need, to check-in and see that they are still “on course,” both individually and as a company.  With a few exceptions, the founding entrepreneur (CEO or not) is a highly-observed individual in an organization. Others in the company will continually look to de-code their signals.  If the founder is also the CEO, this visibility increases, as does the pressure to provide clear and cohesive leadership.

Here are a few things for an entrepreneur to consider about the timing of leadership:

Leadership is a now activity.  Leadership waits only for a follower, not for some future phase of your company.  While you may think that you can wait to address these responsibilities, you really can’t if you want the organization to have the best possible opportunity to thrive.
Leaders are made.  Warren Bennis said, “The most dangerous myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership, that people have certain charismatic qualities or not.  That’s nonsense.  Leaders are made rather than born.”  While this perspective is a larger topic for future columns, the point here is that if you are afraid or unwilling to lead, some magical leader will not appear to do it for you.  Even if you hire a CEO to run the company, as a founding entrepreneur your will always be looked upon to lead. If you don’t meet this challenge, you forfeit an enormous opportunity to help the organization stay connected to its roots.  And when this connection breaks, it is difficult to repair.
Start with questions.  As you step into leadership, ask yourself:

  • What is the image I instinctively want for myself as a leader?
  • How do I need to prepare to have others looking to me for leadership?
  • What will I do to address my fears and insecurities when leading?
  • Where will I go for help with my leadership?

The practice of leadership is a complex and continual process.  And while there are no easy solutions, your growth as a leader will be impacted by how you take your first steps.