Modern Leadership: Redefining CEO Success | Mark MacLeod

January 9, 2024 - Mark MacLeod

Modern Leadership: Redefining CEO Success

leadership trends

Business leadership is an ever-evolving field. According to Harvard University, there are over 15,000 published books on leadership. And that statistic is 10 years old! We can only assume there are many more now.

Why is so much written about business leadership? Well, for one, it is universal. We are all either bosses or we work for one, or both. Also, in our capitalistic society, business leaders are our new heroes. Especially founding CEOs who disrupted old industries. 

Mark Zuckerberg of Meta (formerly Facebook). Marc Benioff of Salesforce. Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify. These people are now celebrities. 

But the real reason why so many leadership books are written is because leadership is hard. 

Since 2000, 52% of companies in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired or ceased to exist. Think about that! Over ½ of the largest, most successful companies, gone. 

In the startup world, the statistics are even more grim. I used to be a venture capitalist. My expectation was that fund returns would come from ~ 20% of our investments. 

Embracing Modern Leadership

We all likely have a stereotypical picture of a leader, especially a CEO. Tall, broad-shouldered. Charismatic. In many cases, male (unfortunately). These are the historical archetypes.

Leadership, historically, was a top-down, command-and-control affair. 

This no longer works. First, modern leaders come in all shapes and sizes. More importantly, business is more dynamic and fast-paced than ever before. Finally, COVID has changed the nature of work for many of us. 

Today’s leaders are also all over the world. Geography no longer matters. The next industry disruptor can come from anywhere. This has big implications for modern leadership. 

Many companies become global early. Their talent is spread throughout the world. So the way in which you lead has to resonate with people from different cultures and backgrounds.

In the startup world, having a business background or even domain knowledge in the industry you are in can be a negative. I have an MBA. I kept that to myself for the most part. 

The leaders that are disrupting industries don’t come from those industries. And they don’t have business backgrounds.

Elon Musk is, without a doubt, the biggest disruptor out there. He knew nothing about the car industry when he started Tesla. Now Tesla is worth more than the next five car companies combined!

It helps to have a certain naïveté when attempting to disrupt an industry. If you knew how hard it would be, you might not try.

Modern leadership is really about being your true, authentic self. When you look at the biggest, most successful companies, they are built around the personality and strengths of their leader.

Apple’s design ethos, standards, attention to detail, etc. all came from Steve Jobs. Shopify’s technological superiority and never-ending quest to make it easy to launch a business comes from its CEO Tobi Lutke.

modern leadership styles

Adapting to Leadership Trends

When I entered the startup world in the late 1990s, the playbook at the time was to bring in a ‘professional’ CEO as soon as the company started to get traction.  This is no longer the case.

The biggest outcomes in startup land are founder-led. This is why I only coach CEOs. There is a 100% correlation between a founding CEO’s performance and the outcome of the company. 

There is a special magic that founders have. No one else will ever have their context, vision, passion, and drive. Investors recognize this and, unless absolutely necessary, don’t replace founding CEOs.

What this means is modern leadership is very entrepreneurial. Very instinctual. The best CEOs lead based on who they are. They make decisions using first principles.  They frown on historical ‘best practices’.

Modern Leadership Essentials

To thrive as a leader in today’s fast-paced world, embrace these tactics. 

1: Lean into your superpowers

Leaders fail when they try to be something they are not. When they read one of those 15,000 leadership books and emulate what worked for someone else.

The leaders that go all the way don’t try to be someone else. They lean into their true, authentic selves.

When I onboard new CEO clients I always ask them: “What is your superpower”? What are you uniquely good at? What kind of work doesn’t feel like “work”? Where are you in flow?

The leaders that thrive build their roles and companies around their unique superpowers.

Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify is a perfect example.

Tobi is a quiet, introverted technologist. He didn’t try to become a stereotypical CEO. He built the company around his strengths. As an introvert, many of the tasks that are common to CEOs drain his energy. 

Public speaking. Investor pitches. Giving rousing speeches to the employees. These are all massive energy drainers for an introvert.

His solution? He hired his polar opposite as his right hand. Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s president, is an unabashed extrovert and force of nature. I know this because many years ago, my office was next to his. The things that drain Tobi energize Harley. They are the perfect duo.

Tobi designed a role that enabled him to lean into and embrace who he truly is. 

2. Operate at the right altitude

When CEOs come to me for coaching, more often than not, it is because they are burnt out. When I dig in I see that they are doing this to themselves by operating at the wrong altitude.

When you start a company you work IN the business. You build product. Sell product. Take out the trash. Whatever is needed.

As the business grows, you need to elevate to work ON the business. “Do I have the right people?” “Are they pointed in the right direction”? Do they have the resources they need to succeed”?

To scale as a leader and keep up with the growth of your business, you need to elevate yourself. You need to operate at the right altitude. Otherwise, you will get bogged down in the details and get left behind.

3. Become a learning machine

The CEO role is the toughest role out there. Every other role has a gradual path.

I was a CFO for many years. First, I studied a body of knowledge and got a CPA designation. Then I worked my way up. I was a controller, then Director of Finance, then VP, Finance. By the time I got the CFO title, I was ready.

As a founder, you start a company and then suddenly you are expected to know how to be a CEO.

The only way to thrive leading a high-growth company is for you to grow faster than your company.

If your company is growing by 100% each year, you need to grow by 100% as a leader. If you don’t then your company will outgrow you. This is why CEOs and other leaders get replaced. They can’t keep up. They used to be great. They no longer are.

The key to keeping up with the growth of the company is to be a learning machine. To go through an explicit learning loop.

How do you become a learning machine? Here are some tactics:

Review your weeks. What did you do well that you should do more of? What needs improving? What could you have done better? What activities add value? Don’t? Energize you? Don’t? Optimize next week based on your review of this week.

Find peers: Every CEO I coach is part of a formal or informal peer group. As mentioned, the CEO role is the only one without a gradual path to get there. It is invaluable to be able to compare notes with other CEOs. 

This is true for other roles as well, but most powerful for CEOs.

Get feedback: CEOs especially struggle with this. An annual 360 review is valuable.

4. Build a support team 

What do you need to be peak you? A coach? Therapist? A personal trainer? Do you need nutritious meals cooked for you? Whatever you need, set it up.

Leaders of large, high-growth companies are like professional athletes. They have the same expectations on their shoulders. Athletes have support teams to help them peak. You need the same if you want to go all the way.

Invest in yourself. The performance of your business is tied to your performance and growth. 

5. Set yourself up for long-term success

Great things take time. The average startup lasts 7 – 10 years. The only way to last as a leader for 7 – 10 years is to build in healthy lifestyle practices. 

What does this mean?

Sleep: get 7+ hours of sleep per night.

Food: Eat real, whole foods. Things that exist in nature.

Exercise: Move (sweat). Ideally daily. At least 3 times per week.

Alcohol: Limit intake during weekdays.

Caffeine: Try to avoid it in the afternoons and evenings as it can disrupt sleep.

innovative leadership styles

Putting this all together, the key to modern leadership is to:

1. Lead based on who you truly are. Design the company around your strengths.

2. Build a strong leadership team so that you can elevate to work ON the business.

3. Use the time that you create through elevating yourself to build in an explicit learning and feedback loop. Become a learning machine

4. Surround yourself with whatever support you need in order to deliver peak performance

5. Build sustainable habits and practices so that you can lead the business all the way to a massive exit.

Easy, right?

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