We closed one of our funding rounds about the same time we landed our largest government R&D contract. At that moment, our plans were clear, our bank account was flush, and the horizon was bright. But I got only one day of basking. The next day I was back in the sprint, aligning our plans and expectations with reality. Within a year, our company was pivoting as the complexity of new technology ran into market acceptance and price tolerance. I needed real-time feedback from my team on what was working and, more important, what wasn't.
Leadership isn't hard when things are great. It's when things are hard that leadership must be great.
To prepare for those times, I propose a new way of thinking about leadership, whether you're running a company or your kid's school PTA. Aim to be a HOT leader. A HOT leader is one who serves with Humility, Openness, and Trust.
Believing you can beat the odds and change the world requires confidence and vision, but you mustn't replace those great qualities with bravado, no matter how many bad examples exist in the venture world. As smart and experienced as you may be, heed the words of Socrates: "I know only one thing--that I know nothing." When we accept our limits, we become unafraid to surround ourselves with an excellent team that complements (not compliments) our skills and knowledge.
But you can't fake it with a #HumbleBrag. You must embrace humility to create a learning and collaborative culture. When you're humble, you can ask for help. When you're humble, you aren't afraid to ask questions that might expose your ignorance. When you're humble, you can admit when you're wrong. This demonstration of humility allows your team to become more open, which is critical. In a startup or any high-risk endeavor, some things won't go as planned. Some of your best ideas will fail. But you need your team to stick with you and dedicate themselves to the mission, no matter how tough the struggle becomes. They can tell when you aren't being open, and if you hide bad news, you'll lose your team.
Openness also fosters creativity. Innovation flourishes when people share ideas, both the great and the not-so-great, and when they work across functional groups. In contrast, if your team is afraid of being shamed or sharing failures, they won't take risks. And working in isolation prevents fresh insights from people on the other side of the hall (or in another Zoom room).
Humility and Openness in turn foster Trust, which is the foundation of an effective team. A great trust-builder is delegation, which can be a challenge for new leaders. Much as we don't care to admit it, hesitance in handing off a task stems from a lack of trust. "I know I would do this well," you think, "but how do I know they will?" This closed-thinking cripples an innovative organization and isn't scalable. You may well be the best person in the company at writing proposals, for example, but if you spend your time doing that, what are you not doing that only you can do? If you never trust your colleagues to do the work, you'll never know how good they are. On the other hand, if you trust and give them honest feedback, they can grow to better support the mission. The more you trust your team, the more you'll succeed.
The great thing about HOTness is that it's self-reinforcing. As a leader at any level, you must model these attributes in all your actions. When you trust your team, they grow to trust you. When you show humility, your team will become more open. And when you have a team of HOT leaders, you can do anything.
Give it a try. Be HOT.