Cultivating a successful startup requires many ideas falling into place, but it also takes strong leadership. And within the business world, when it comes to the age-old question of whether leaders are born or made, various ideas exist. William Shakespeare, a prolific writer whose work profoundly impacted modern culture, offers a multi-faceted answer, spoken by Twelfth Night’s Malvolio: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
And from a scientific standpoint, Shakespeare’s words aren’t too far off base. Even the so-called “natural leaders” of the business world, like Bill Gates and the late Tony Hsieh, developed even stronger skills over time, as they climbed the ranks and learned lessons along the way. Research indicates that education and life experience are more likely to breed a successful business leader than inborn talent alone.
Yet the blood, sweat, and tears that build over time are of little help without a strong mind and a well-developed sense of self. Making tough decisions is a huge part of the job for business leaders, and you must be able to get things done, no matter what it takes. Let’s take a look at how the right blend of experience, intelligence, and adaptability makes for a successful leader.
What it Takes to be an Effective Leader
Although leadership skills can be learned and refined as you gain greater experience, it still takes a certain kind of person to lead a team to success. Whether born, made, or somewhere in between, business leaders in virtually every niche typically share certain characteristics. For example, effective leaders tend to be bold, extroverted, assertive, and intelligent.
Humility is also a key characteristic of a strong leader — that is, you must be willing to admit when you have reached your skill plateau, and take steps to fill in knowledge gaps. According to the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, once you have maximized your effectiveness as a leader, your career could stall. By owning up to your personal knowledge- and skill-based limitations, you may just become a better, more trusted leader.
Business Leadership: Challenges and Lessons Learned
Of course, effective leadership also requires strong mental fortitude. And in some cases, individual brain complexity may play a role when it comes to “unlocking” your leadership skills. A study of U.S. military leaders found that a productive prefrontal cortex may be responsible for the development of more decisive, adaptive traits in leaders.
The brains of effective leaders are complex, efficient, and able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. What’s more, complex brain activity helps reduce the phenomenon of “phase lock,” wherein your brain’s resources are disproportionately focused on a single task. Business leaders must be able to focus on the big picture and adapt as necessary.
It’s important to note that even the most complex brain has its limitations. Your cognitive ability can be negatively affected by factors ranging from stress to lack of sleep and/or unhealthy dietary choices. When your circadian rhythm (that is, your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle) is disrupted, you may find it more difficult to focus on work-related tasks, negating your ability to effectively run a business.
If you’re experiencing disruptions in your circadian rhythm, there are several ways to “reset” your internal clock. Make sure that you’re getting enough exercise and recommended calories, and spend time outdoors during the day, when the sun is shining. Once you have a healthy routine in place, you can even encourage employees to follow suit, solidifying your position as a forward-thinking leader.
Developing Your Personal Leadership Style
When entrepreneur Tony Hsieh unexpectedly passed away at the age of 46, business leaders around the world paid tribute via social media. Particular attention was paid to Hsieh’s unique leadership style, creativity, and curiosity. The former Zappos CEO achieved notoriety as a forward-thinking business leader, maximizing long-term profits via inclusive company culture and a holacratic structure.
Under the leadership of Hsieh, Zappos implemented holacracy in early 2014, a system wherein employees are equal in terms of hierarchy, and directly responsible for their own, individually assigned tasks. Although holacracy garnered its fair share of criticism, and widespread self-management is far from practical in most corners of business, the concept is rooted in creativity. Strong leaders like Hsieh aren’t afraid to shake things up or to bring fresh ideas to a business model, even if they ultimately fall flat.
Failure is a key component of success. Your startup could tank for numerous reasons, related to finances, your mindset, or all of the above. As a business leader, you must be able to rise above challenges and look upon failure as an opportunity for growth rather than the end-all of a long-held dream.
Effectively leading a team, especially in the realm of startups, which can be a volatile and unpredictable niche, requires the right mix of character traits, passion, and known-how. With just a little bit of hard work and self-actualization, you can develop leadership qualities, and improve upon them, for continued success long into the future.