Lead, Follow or Get the Fuck Out of the Way

Posted on Oct 22, 2011 | 107 comments


Today’s post courtesy of the Dave McClure school of vocabulary.

About a month ago I was meeting with a seasoned entrepreneur. After 10 minutes I felt like we were old buddies because we had both been through the trenches of startup tech land and had had similar experiences.

He was recounting one of his higher profile startups to me. He founded the company, raised a bunch of money, built the product and established a good reputation and market position. But five years into it he has brought on a senior management team, had stopped growing at the same meteoric rate and started to lose some enthusiasm.

He said that when talking with the board and with investors he realized that he was no longer visionary in this particular field and certainly no longer passionate about it. It happens. But since he was still the CEO people still always looked for him to set the direction of the company. He was the founder, after all. He realized he needed to leave.

He told me his motto, which is one that I’ve always lived by. He said, “The reason I needed to go was the I believe that you either lead, follow or get the fuck out of the way. I was no longer leading, so I became the problem.”

Hallelujah.

I sure wish the founders of Yahoo! understood that. What a wonderful company they built. What a tremendous asset it could be. But for years Yahoo! hasn’t innovated, hasn’t led. When that happens it is no longer acceptable to be the founder on the board trying to reinvent yourself. When you haven’t been decisive in years, when you botched a profitable exit, when you hired a non-visionary CEO and then fired her by email – it’s time to get out of the way. For the good of your people. Otherwise, it’s ego centric.

Why does this credo resonate with me?

1. Leadership – It’s hard to be a real leader. To do that you need to be saying & doing what most people think is wrong. If you think you’re on to a really big idea and everybody else thinks so, too, then most likely it’s already conventional wisdom and you’re too late. When Steve Jobs decided to open retail Apple stores people thought he was crazy. When he launched the iPad many people were saying, “I don’t get it, it’s just a big iPhone” or similar.

When Marc Benioff declared “the end of software” industry insiders scoffed. When Dave McClure announced “500 Startups” even I chuckled. I thought it was hard to invest in 10 let alone 500. Dave still has some proving to do, but he’s certainly had a vision, stuck to it, changed the rules of the game and proven much in a short period of time.

He has built an amazing facility, has established a design-centric credo, has assembled great mentors and certainly gets access to great talent. Time will tell whether he succeeds greatly or not but you have to admire a man doing things in an innovative way and with the passion, energy, commitment and self-belief that he has. This “fuck” is to him. Hat’s off, man.

Leaders have well-formed opinions that go against the grain, the temerity to sell their vision to skeptics, the tenacity to stick to their ideas when they are inevitably criticized, the resiliency to wake every day when they’re being kicked by everybody for their beliefs but also the willingness to look at data and re-chart their course when they got it wrong.

Leaders need to be early, have conviction, be persuasive and get others to follow when rational people should not. And trust me, the world is FILLED with naysayers. Whether they succeed or not does not defeat their leadership and willingness to try.

2. Follow – There truly aren’t many leaders. It’s a thankless and stressful job. And leaders aren’t always right of when they are they don’t always win. But in every team you need the majority of people who excel at their job functions. They are great at their respective fields whether they be marketing, sales, programming, PR, whatever. People in these job functions are also leaders – don’t get me wrong – but on each team you still need leaders & followers. You simply can’t have a team of people all pulling in different directions.

Sometimes knowing you’re a great “number 2″ in a company or on your team is a very relieving realization. The executer. The doer. The hands-on manager. The person who dot’s i’s and crosses t’s. Every “shaper” needs a “completer / finisher” – every leader needs his or her disciples and team members.

3. Get the Fuck Out of the Way – I know that some will naturally think that this means that I’m suggesting the dissent isn’t a good thing. I’m not saying that at all. In my first company we were building 4 products at the same time, which was a mistake. I was at a team stand up meeting and, Matt Havens, the head of one of the product lines, blurted out, “I think we’re doing too many things and none of them well enough. I think we should focus more.”

I asked him to continue. He gave evidence of where we were making bad trade-offs. We had a company-wide discussion. I didn’t commit to anything but listened to all the views. Within a week I decided he was right and we put 100% of the team into one product and iced the other three. We only ever came back and took one of the other products off the ice. That initial product became a market leader in its area.

Dissent is fine. If – and this is a big IF – you have other ideas. If you’re constructive. If you’re also willing to be a leader.

But too many people are “back benchers” – the people who are in the back of parliament and get to throw out their opinions in public time but aren’t having to lead. I learned early in life about the destructive nature of back benchers.

When I was president of my fraternity they were the ones who always criticized the fact that we weren’t throwing enough parties but did nothing to help us raise money or get members to pay dues. They were pissed off that a great potential recruit went to another fraternity but they did nothing to throw better Rush event. The cracked jokes from the back because it was easier.

Throughout life I’ve realized that many people are back benchers. “That will never work” is their motto. They like to criticize but they don’t have strong ideas of their own. They “know” what’s wrong but they never do anything about it. They never lead. Yet they don’t follow.

When you spot people like that in your company you shoot them. If you wake up one day in any organization and you realize that you’re no longer “part of the solution” it’s time to get the fuck out of the way. This is especially true when you’re senior and too many people are looking at you or when your disbelief undermines the confidence of others.

When you get the fuck out of the way you either find out that the other leadership was right or you get the chance from the outside to later say they were wrong.

In work I find nothing more irritating than people who always have their three critiques of your plan but never do anything themselves. I don’t hide it well. I have “get the fuck out of my way” written all over my forehead. It can be a weakness, sure. It makes me less of a politician. But I sleep better at night.

Image Courtesy of 500px

  • http://twitter.com/kylmbrown Kyle M Brown

    Thank you for writing and posting! Nice work and message. No chance large corporations every implement this idea though.

  • Hesky

    Mark

    Gr8 post, I am sharing this with my team – specifically no.3 is what gets me going. I don’t mind solid debate on direction of the company as long as they are constructive, comments like ” we need to be better @ product” are not helpful if they are not with specific examples…

  • day_dree

    YES!   You nailed leadership.  You nailed get the fuck out of the way. 

  • Gregmatinian

    Very straight and very true… Thank you for sharing the truth.

  • Identified Reader

    Yes, God forbid anyone should ever suffer from chronic depression. It’s their fault – because we all know we can perfectly control our lives and our fates. There is no such thing as genetics. Or child abuse.  Or even authoritarian styles of parenting, or bullying…
    Why are people so uninformed and shallow that they blame others for their own mental illness, just because it’s not something immediately visible like a missing hand?Not all disorders are treatable, and the ones that are, take years of diagnosis, therapy and trying different medication at different doses etc.

  • eskuhn

    Incredible post. So true on so many levels at a startup, especially with the roller-coaster that comes along with it.

    I wish our political leaders (all of them) could also live by this axiom.

  • Robert Thuston

    and that’s what I fucking love about Mark Suster…