The Three Components of Leadership

Some time ago I was chatting in the kitchen with my roommate about our extracurricular activities in college, and we got to talking about leadership. Both of us had held leadership positions that had greatly challenged us; I as the captain of my ultimate frisbee team, and she as a coordinator for solar decathlon, a team that competes in a US Department of Energy sponsored competition to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses.  While we both adequately met our responsibilities (the house was built, the games were played) both of us felt that we had, in some way, failed. 

My roommate and I aren't just ordinary roommates, brought together by a shared hobby, or a mutual friend, or a twist of Craigslist fate; we are both Venture for America fellows, participants in a two year entrepreneurship program that matches recent college graduates with startups in low-income cities. Venture for America is supposed to teach fellows how to start and grow a company by putting them "in the trenches" and forcing us to learn by doing. Most of the learning, however, comes from watching our employers, the entrepreneurs.

OMG it's @jack. If I wear designer jeans will I make a million dollars?
We aren't alone; I un-statistically estimate that 90% of all entrepreneurship-related talks hosted on college campuses, at startup accelerators, or at business community events are nothing more than first-person tales from successful entrepreneurs about their experiences founding and growing a company. Everyone in the audience listens because they believe that given enough data points, they will be able to unlock the secret of entrepreneurship, but the truth is, there is no formula. You can't become an entrepreneur by cramming for three months and taking the bar exam. You can't become an entrepreneur by completing eight years of school and five years of residency. You can't become an entrepreneur by shaking hands, kissing babies, and winning an election. Still the community of wannabes searches, throwing every CEO who naively agrees to a speaking engagement into the petri dish, poking, pulling, and dissecting in a desperate attempt to understand what makes this species tick.

So what makes entrepreneur? According to Google (don't you love the new definition widget?) An entrepreneur is "a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so."  Well, any wannabe can take a risk, so the secret must be in that first part, "a person who organizes and operates a business." Well, that's just a leader. So what makes a leader? While the word may at first conjure an image of a stereotypical ENTJ, there should be enough examples of alternative leaders in history and movies to make you realize that no single personality type can claim a monopoly on the appellation.  Leaders can be passionate or reserved, multilayered or straightforward, exacting or compassionate.  Leaders can become leaders intentionally, or accidentally; and they can lead by example, or they can direct from behind. There is no formula, but are there perhaps, some common traits? 

Photo Credit.

During this kitchen chat with my roommate, we evaluated our performance as leaders, and discussed what traits made us successful, and where we fell short. I talked about how I felt like I had handled team administration fairly well (planning tournaments is a lot of work!), and had known where we needed to improve to play better as a team, but had never led cheers or managed to catalyze the team when we were feeling low. She talked about how she had capitalized on her enthusiasm to recruit lots of friends and freshman to join the solar decathlon team, but hadn't done a great job delegating or guiding the team towards its final goal. We expanded our analysis to the strengths and weaknesses of our bosses, and wondered why so many startup co-founders could be characterized as either the vocal frontman or the quiet techie, and if half of that stereotypical entrepreneurial duo was more important than the other.  Eventually, we broke leadership down into three components: 


Can you convince other people that your ideas are good ideas? Are you enthusiastic enough to believe in them yourself, and suppress your doubts when you have them? Do you know how to offer encouragement, instill hope, and throw a fun party? Spirit means getting people to follow you, work hard for you, and feel good about their decision. The charismatic and the popular can meet this requirement almost without trying, but Spirit can also be learned; to master it you must spend the time to understand what people want, and figure out how to phrase objectives and structure incentives in those terms. Most of the entrepreneurship literature about establishing a "company culture" is really about Spirit; it also defines the difference between a good and a mediocre salesman. 

The Spirit. Photo Credit.  
A person can become a leader without Spirit if they are appointed to leadership role in an established organization, such as the military or, for example, my frisbee team, but such leaders will be tolerated at best and hated at worst.  There is a word for entrepreneurs without Spirit: hobbyists. They might have the coolest idea ever, and they might be smarter than Einstein and more productive than Edison, but if they can't convince anyone to join them in their venture, they will never build anything. 


You might be great at talking your idea up, but when it comes down to it, can you sit down and get things done? Can you set deadlines, delegate effectively, and handle the details if necessary?  Can you recognize when your idea isn't going to work out and adjust accordingly? Execution is the most straightforward component of leadership: with enough time and self-discipline, you can learn what you need to do to start, operate, and grow an organization (although some people just have a talent for getting shit done). Learning how to execute is what Venture for America is all about. 

The Execution. Photo Credit. 
Any structure underneath a leader who cannot execute will soon fall apart. An entrepreneur with Spirit but without Execution might be able to generate a lot of excitement, and might even get a first round investment, but they won't go anywhere in the long run.  If they and their investors are deluded enough about their ability to execute, they'll blow their company up.  Execution is the meat of leadership; without it you're just a can of hot air.


Vision is the most difficult component to describe, and I think also the least common. Vision is the ability to imagine an end-state that does not exist yet, and blaze a path to achieve that vision.  As children, we are told that society works in a certain way, and we become so used to playing by the rules that we forget that as members of society we also make it. A leader with Vision doesn't play by the rules.  Visions don't have to be exact, revolutionary, or even completely articulatable; most are actually accidental, the result of an unplanned application of a particular innovation, or marginal, but marginal in a way that makes a big difference. A leader with Vision can seize on an idea, whatever its source, and nurture it, test, adapt it, and expose it to the cold mercy of the market when the time is right. 

The Vision. Photo Credit.
A common problem in entrepreneurship is the "comparison trap" - when companies spend too much time trying to imitate competitors, and not enough time focusing on what differentiates them, or going back to the blackboard and truly innovating. The music industry, for example, spent 100 years making marginal improvements to the record player, and they could have kept going, making CDs and CD players smaller, better, and more efficient. Instead, Apple released the iPod, a completely new type of music player.  That was Vision. An entrepreneur without Vision can get pretty far, and might even make it all the way to an IPO if they can marginally improve on a preexisting product or by delivering the same value more efficiently. But an entrepreneur without Vision is not going to change the world, and will never become a great company.  

The conversation with my roommate in the kitchen was three months ago, so I've been sitting on this three-part conception of leadership for some time. I still like it. It helped me realize, in a more concrete way than I had before, that my deficiency as a team captain had been in Spirit, not Execution, and that throwing more energy into getting shit done will not help me become a better leader. My roommate, for her part, recognized that while Spirit comes naturally to her, Execution doesn't always. Neither of us are certain that we've ever had Vision. But we're looking for it. 

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