Founder CEO: Lead Role in a Cage

People found companies to create something new in the world—not to become a CEO. Think of Jobs, Musk, Bezos. Before they were CEOs, they were inventors. Creating something new in the world takes audacity and a certain dogged single-mindedness. These qualities are valuable and necessary for creating something out of nothing.

I’ve observed, however, that these qualities, in combination, often place the CEO in a cage of their own making.

Consider: you have an audacious vision for a new future, a vision that challenges convention. Your vision doesn’t focus on a company or the people in that company. It’s focused on what you want to create that doesn’t yet exist—a product or service that solves a big problem. The vision of that pulls you to surround yourself with people who, like you, will give themselves to realizing that possibility, simply for the sake of inventing a different future. It pulls you to lead them. As the first articulator of that vision, you become the de facto center of gravity in an organization of like-minded souls.

Often, the strength of your vision resonates with these like-minded individuals. If it involves ground-breaking technology, for instance, forward-thinking technical experts will be drawn to you. They will share your dogged single-mindedness to make your vision real. Each individual expert will put their head down and do whatever it takes to realize your invention. Your collection of individual contributors will do their very best: some will even sacrifice themselves for the sake of your vision.

However, unintentionally and without knowing it, you may have trapped yourself in a cage of your own making. As the creator and keeper of the vision, everyone defers to you as if you are an all-knowing “genius”.

Observe how people are listening to you. Do they defer to your authority as the founder—and still bring their ideas forward? Or do they defer to you—even revere you, almost treat you like a celebrity—and in turn, withhold their ideas out of respect for your “genius”? If the latter, that will create a dangerous blind spot for you.

We speak as we are listened to. Buy into the celebrity of being a founder CEO and you put your company and your vision at risk.

The “celebrity” status is the cage, primarily because we don’t see that people are tiptoeing around us. Or they grant us authority that doesn’t serve us. We can’t see that–and neither can they. As leaders, we can miss out on hearing what we really need to hear.  We can miss out on seeing what we really need to see. We won’t know what information we’re not getting because people are choosing or withholding their words around us. Even worse, we will start speaking in a way that reinforces their reverence and this “cult of celebrity”.

So how do we liberate ourselves from inside the cage?

We open ourselves up to the input of others. We make sure that everyone on our team is able to speak freely and spontaneously–without hesitation. We eliminate any celebrity-type reverence that would hold them back.

We can’t operate as if “no news is good news” in this regard. It is our job responsibility to establish a norm of open communication and candor that facilitates healthy exchange of ideas and feedback. As CEO, it up to us to have one-on-one conversations to establish a norm of free-flowing dialogue.