site of the day
aw ww ards®

Click anywhere to enable sound

Navigating the High Seas of Startup Leadership 

by Anna Datsenko, COO at IdeaSoft

Leadership is the fuel that powers the engine of any successful business. But in the world of startups, it’s not just important – it’s downright essential! The right kind of leadership can unlock untold potential in your team, leading to greater productivity, motivation, and success.

Think about it — if you’re a startup founder, you’re essentially the captain of the ship. You need to navigate choppy waters, steer the ship towards your goals, and inspire your crew to keep pushing even when things get tough. And that’s where strong leadership comes in – it can be the difference between a team that sinks or swims.

According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, 65% of startups fail due to problems with leadership, while a study by McKinsey also revealed that 500 executives consider leadership development to be a top human-capital priority both currently and in the future. 

So, if you want your startup to move with the wind, it’s time to invest in leadership. In this article, we’ll explore various frameworks for effective leadership in startup teams, giving you the practical tools and insights you need to be the best mariner you can be. Let’s set sail towards it.

Efficient leadership starts with an efficient leader

Efficient leadership lies at the intersection of team needs, business needs, and leader needs. If we’re talking about business needs, it’s kind of obvious, right? When it comes to team needs, we must create an environment that fosters productivity and loyalty to the business and its leader. 

However, many people and leaders overlook the needs of the leader. But remember? Put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help those around you. It’s crucial to prioritize your own needs and create a clear portrait as a leader before thinking about building your team. How can you do it?

In order to complement your leadership profile there is a 3C model by Ivey Business School. 

It states that leaders are made up of a unique combination of character (traits, values, virtues) and competencies in the people, organizational, business, and strategic aspects. When combined, this 3C create an overall capacity that is essential for effective leadership. However, commitment is also a vital ingredient for success. As a leader, you must have your aspiration, engagement, and willingness to make sacrifices when necessary to achieve your goals.

Manager VS Leader

But don’t go too far with focusing on leadership as you are still a startup. The product that you’re building requires both managing and leading roles which are often viewed as distinct, emphasizing that only leaders can keep employees engaged and loyal to a company while managers focus on maintaining the status quo, prioritizing efficiency, tasks, budgets, process development, and typically lead with authority. Some frameworks suggest that leaders are the next step up from being a manager, requiring specific competencies to effectively lead a team. But here’s the thing: a great leader can also be a great manager, and vice versa. It’s not about pitting one against the other – it’s about recognizing the unique strengths of each role and knowing when to switch between them, especially in a hectic startup life.

Group VS Team

Ok, you’re already on your way to becoming a great leader but could you make it without your team? And what does the team actually mean? Let’s go deeper into it. 

While a group of people may work together on a project, they often have individual accountability, goals, and success or failure. In contrast, a team is made up of individuals who have shared goals and mutual accountability, with collective success or failure. This means that a team is more united and interdependent than a group, as a group may work together to complete a task but not share the same understanding of why that task is important. In contrast, a team is united by a common vision, which drives their efforts and inspires them to work together toward a shared goal. Ultimately, a leader’s role is to foster an environment where a group can become a high-performing team. This requires setting a common vision, promoting mutual accountability, and empowering team members to rely on one another to achieve shared goals and objectives.

Turn a group into a unified team

In order to make it easier for your team to evolve from group to team, it’s important to analyze your team dynamics, where your team is right now and what you need to do to make a shift to the next stage of efficiency. 

There is a myriad of frameworks that you can use, but we would like to highlight three of them:

1. Tuckman’s model

This paradigm states the five stages of team development which can help you navigate the ups and downs of teamwork, build a culture of constructive conflict, and ultimately achieve your goals. As a leader, it’s crucial to understand where your team is in the five-stage process and implement strategies to move forward. Building a culture of constructive and healthy conflicts can help foster a sense of trust and respect among team members, ultimately leading to better communication and teamwork. Remember that every team goes through all the stages, so it’s important not to skip any of them.

2. Susan Wheelan’s integrated model of group development

According to Susan Williams’ integrated model of group development, teams go through four stages, and the leader’s role varies during each stage. In the first stage, the team is dependent and inclusive, and the leader acts as an instructor, explaining everything and checking every task. Building relationships is crucial at this stage, and the leader should invest a lot of time in this. As the team moves to the second stage, which is characterized by counter-dependency and conflict, the leader’s role becomes that of a mentor, investing less time in micro-management and more in strategic actions. The third stage is about trust and structure, and the leader can delegate some tasks to other team members and spend more time on strategic thinking and activities. The fourth stage is characterized by productivity and the leader’s role shifts to that of an expert. The team is mature, and the leader is only needed in complex situations as an expert, not to instruct or advise on routine matters. According to research, it typically takes around six months for a team to move from the dependence and inclusion stage to the stage of working productivity. However, the pace of progress can vary, depending on the leader’s competencies and the team’s dynamics.

3. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Another framework that is essential for leaders to refer to is the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni’s model suggests that five common dysfunctions can hinder a team’s success. These dysfunctions build upon each other, so it’s essential to address them in order, starting with the most basic and progressing to the more complex. Here are the five stages:

As a leader, you can use your awareness of the five dysfunctions to recognize issues as they happen, so that you can help your team to be more effective. And remember that these are just five of the factors that can affect the performance of your team, so use these alongside other team effectiveness tools.

What else?

Actually, there are numerous frameworks available to assist founders in building their teams. Nevertheless, nearly all framework emphasizes certain components essential to developing a cohesive team:

  1. Role of Conflict

Barely every framework includes the importance of conflict which can be a positive force in building a strong and effective team, but only if it is handled constructively. As a leader, strive to create a culture where team members feel safe to express their ideas and opinions, even if they disagree with each other. This requires building a foundation of trust and respect, which can be achieved through feeling secure. 

  1. Psychological safety: a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.


  • Opportunity to open, speak honestly
  • Make mistakes without fear of humiliation, punishment, rejection
  • Team members freely give each other feedback and challenge each other 
  • Healthy and constructive conflicts
  • People are comfortable being themselves
  1. Opportunity to make mistakes

Mistakes are often viewed as something to be avoided at all costs, but as we already know, for startup teams, they can be a valuable asset. In fact, embracing mistakes help your team build common resilience, spark innovative solution by trying new things, and foster collaboration within a team itself. However, it’s crucial to understand the reason for making mistakes. Was it made because of the complexity of the solution? Or maybe hypothesis validation or inattentiveness? Let mistakes happen with the outcome towards progress. 

  1. Team’s ability to absorb change

The startup environment is very hectic and rapidly changing, especially in the early stages. 

Change fatigue manifests in negative reactions such as burnout, frustration or apathy-and results in lower employee engagement and productivity. Not only a high volume of large-scale change is what causes fatigue. Different types of change exert on employees and found that day-to-day changes, such as moving to a new manager or team, are far more damaging than drastic organizational shifts. Gartner analyzed data from more than 4,000 employees across levels, regions and geographies and found that two differentiators enable employees to better absorb change:

  • Trust: the extent to which employees believe that key stakeholders have their interests in mind, and do what they have promised to do. Employees who report high trust have an average capacity for change that is 2.6 times greater than those with low trust.
  • Team cohesion: the extent to which teams share a sense of belonging and connection, along with commitment, accountability, and a common goal. Employees with strong team cohesion have a capacity for change 1.5 times greater than the capacity of those with low team cohesion

So there is still a myriad of frameworks that, like a map, can suggest you the best route while developing leadership skills by providing guidance on where to focus your efforts and what questions to ask. This can save you time and help you get to the root of any issues more quickly.

Leadership in a startup team is crucial for success, and it requires a unique set of skills and qualities. So if you’re a startup leader or aspiring to be one, remember that you’re the captain of your team’s ship. Embrace the challenges and mistakes along the way, and use them as opportunities to learn and grow. With a steady hand at the helm, and a crew that trusts and supports you, you can navigate your startup through any storm and reach your destination with confidence.

Get the notes and launch your startup into a new orbit