I hear a lot of language about how leaders and founders "drive performance" in startup land. It's a popular buzz term. Yet over the years, I've learned that driving no longer holds a favorable place in democratic, collaborative startup cultures.

If you think about it, we drive cattle, cars and trucks; they have no say because "we're in charge." We push them through and steer them where we want them to go, but that's the opposite of what a great leader does or is.

This might explain why startups fail in such a relationship-driven economy. It may also explain why, if you're the head of your department, it has the highest turnover in the company. Or why people are rejecting job offers to come work for you.

To keep employees happy and engaged, consider doing something powerful but oh-so counter-intuitive (this may hurt).

But first, let me soften the blow with a first-hand real life illustration to ease the tension.

Lessons from a Former Boss

To this day, Bruce is my favorite executive boss. Bruce taught me so many leadership lessons. For example:

  • He didn't get caught up in his personal power; he inspired me by making me feel like an equal.
  • He never took advantage of his title or positional power. He was the most approachable boss I ever had.
  • He shared the decision-making with me, even while we played different roles in business.
  • He never pulled rank on me. He made sure I had a seat at the table in all the important decisions.
  • He provided me with all the resources I needed to stretch me into becoming a better leader.

While I was still accountable to him, and he was still "the boss," I remember how much more satisfied and engaged I was than at any other time during my corporate career.

Why did this boss-employee relationship work out so well for me? Here's the powerful and counter-intuitive thing I want you to consider doing:

Stop leading...from the top-down.

Start sharing leadership....from the bottom-up.

No, this is not an introduction to doormat leadership. Here's the thing: By sharing and delegating your power, you're going to soon learn that you'll be a much better leader in a startup culture. 

Let me show you what I mean. Here are four shared-leadership principles proven over time to develop work cultures of trust and loyalty.

1. Facilitate a shared vision. 

Key word here is facilitate. This leader learns to communicate an image of the future that draws the tribe in--that speaks to what people see and feel.

As most MBA programs teach, great visions will answer these three questions:

  • Destination: Where are we going?
  • Purpose: Why do we exist? What greater good do we serve?
  • Values: What principles guide our decisions and actions on our journey?

When a vision addresses all three of these questions for team members, a tremendous amount of energy is unleashed.

There is going to be a higher level of commitment because they are able to see the relationship between the direction of the organization and what they personally believe in and care deeply about. After all, they signed up for this.

As their leader, you learn to communicate an image of the future that speaks to why they are doing the work, and how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

But the vision isn't being driven forcefully. Great leaders encourage their tribes to contribute their ideas, insights and realities.

2. Share power and release control.

The leaders in this relationship economy have a penchant to serve the needs of others first. It's not about them.

If you want to foster high trust, risk-taking, creativity and open communication, and you're still riding on your autocratic high-horse, consider getting off for the higher road of sharing power and releasing control.

Because when you do, you actually gain real power by pumping fear out of the room; your team will have your back, unleash discretionary effort and do amazing work.

3. Share status and promote others.

Instead of leveraging their positional power for personal gain, self-promotion or demands for special privileges, they put their people in positions of leadership to stretch their growth and develop new strengths and roles.

The return on this investment is watching a leadership culture rise up. Good leaders will teach others to do the same. 

4. Push authority down.

In highly effective organizations, there are leaders at every level, not just at the top. The solution is always to push authority down so you're creating a leader-leader culture.

In his book Turn the Ship Around, retired U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet documents how he transformed a ship under his command by challenging the U.S. Navy's traditional leader-follower approach and pushing for leadership at every level.

As a result, his submarine skyrocketed from worst to first in the whole fleet because of his choice to give up control. The crew became fully engaged, contributing their intellectual capacity every day.