Why starting a social start-up is a crash course in leadership

By Emily Johnston, co-founder of Unity Effect.

When it comes to starting a social impact project or business, most people start out with an idea for solving a problem or creating a positive impact. Most likely you deeply care about your cause and are driven by your belief in your idea. You take one step at a time and start to gain some momentum. Inspiration is catchy and chances are people around you are naturally inspired to believe in it too and even become a part of it. Before you know it, you might need to find ways to engage these people in a more structured way or bring in others to help out. Before you know it a team is forming. Suddenly you go from being the driving force behind your idea – the one who does every job, big and small – to having other people to share the work with. Suddenly you have to become a leader, whether or not you really had that in mind when you started out.

Emily is also one of our journey guides, in charge of the area of Program Design at Unity Effect

This is at least what happened to me. Or rather, what is happening to me. My co-founders and I started out driven by the idea of empowering changemakers. We wanted to support all those crazy game-changing people out there to do their thing, as big and bright as they can, by offering kick-arse personal and leadership development programs. In fact, that is still what we are doing. And in case you are wondering, yes this is some crazy inception stuff going on here. We believed that starting a start-up would be an epic experience and require some soul searching, resilience building and authentic leadership capacities on behalf of the founders. So we founded a start-up to offer a program to solve this need. And in doing so we learnt that yes, it truly is an epic experience, and yes, you really do need to find a way to navigate through that experience and build the capacities to support yourself. Because starting a start-up, or any project for that matter, can really bring out the best and worst in you, and it can teach you a heck of a lot about yourself. And that was before we even had a team. In the last months as our team has begun to grow, it has taken the leadership learning journey to a whole new level, because now we are actually leaders (side note: we are now also creating programs for teams, because we discovered a whole new area of need there as well. Inception strikes again).

“As a leader, you have an amazing opportunity to set the tone for the way you work, communicate and be together”.

Yet even before you get to the point where you can no longer deny your role as a leader, you’ve probably already been through a massive learning curve. You’ve quite likely already overcome some obstacles (within yourself and out in the world) and learnt to do things you’ve never imagined yourself doing. For me this included learning to share my work with others before it is fully ready (goodbye perfectionist me of the past!); learning to build websites (which are far from perfect, but get the job done. Take that, perfectionist me of the past!); learning to design and facilitate leadership programs; and learning to share a seemingly intangible idea in a way that connects to people, among a thousand other things that I either learnt through google, youtube, asking people, a few mentors or just trying it out, sometimes over and over again. Yet no matter how much you feel like you know or not, one thing’s for sure: when it comes to your business, you are the expert.

Even when you feel totally out of your depth, when you have no idea what your next step should be and when you receive totally different advice from people with a lot of knowledge and experience, at the end of the day no-one knows more about your project, your business, your vision than you do. Even if there are other ideas out there that seem pretty similar on the surface, you can be certain that in some small or large way you are pioneering something new. This is not to say that you shouldn’t learn from the experience or expertise of others – you absolutely should – but just to remind yourself that something – the context, the idea, the purpose, your team, your skills – makes your project unique and nobody understands it better than you. Holding that unique vision and having the courage and confidence to follow your intuition, make decisions and act on it is part of your work as a leader. Yet it can feel pretty overwhelming when people expect you to have all the answers (at least I assume it does).

What if I let them see the real me?

When I was first in the position of facing my team’s expectations that I have all the answers, I found it pretty stressful. And fair enough: the leadership paradigm of the past has drummed it into us that good leaders are strong leaders, that they know what to do and they have no problem telling others what and how to do it. For me it has been a pretty powerful experience to be open and vulnerable with my team. We can get so much more creativity, passion and energy out of our team by creating space for everyone to step up, and by doing so we have so much more fun along the way. More importantly, we get to be actual, real-life humans at work. To share when I am feeling overwhelmed, or to say ‘I have no damn clue’ when asked something I have no damn clue about. It shifts the dynamic from ‘I am the all-knowing and all-powerful expert leader’ to ‘we are all human, we all have no damn clue sometimes, we are all navigating unknown territory and we are working this out together’. Not only does it make for a more human working environment, it also allows us to tap into the collective intelligence of the team and to work out the answers together.

Maybe you’re thinking: but if I let them see the real me, with all my fears and doubts and no-damn-clue-ness, then they will see me differently. They will see how much I don’t know and maybe lose faith in my ability to do my work and lead. And if I give them space to step up, to make decisions, to bring in ideas, I will give away my power. My authority. And my shield which hides the fact that I have no idea how I even ended up in this position and only my shield makes it look like I should be here. And perhaps you will lose a little power – but possibly over things that you don’t want to have power over anyway. Yet you will most likely gain so much more authentic power – the power that comes from people trusting you, respecting you and believing in you after and because they’ve seen what’s behind the shield, and more importantly because they’ve witnessed you putting it down. And damn, that thing can be heavy!  

The core team of Unity Effect: Franziska Kohn, Paulina Andrade, Jannik Kaiser and Emily Johnston.

In this and in so many other ways, you realise how much you impact on the culture of the team. When you start your own business or project, you are literally creating the culture from scratch. And as a leader, you have an amazing opportunity to set the tone for the way you work, communicate and be together. In our team it’s probably a little different than in most, as we are building ourselves up as a fully self-organised team. Which brings a whole new dimension to the question of leadership: we are all in some ways leaders within the team, in different capacities and contexts. We are all holding, following and acting on the vision together. And yet for us as the cofounders, there was a point at which we could decide what kind of culture we wanted to create. And even as we practice sharing leadership amongst the team, we have a certain responsibility to carry out and lead this crazy thing we started. And the thing with responsibility is, in the end it’s all on you.

Even if you leading a one-person business, in which the one person is you, you have to take full responsibility. Even if you are sharing this responsibility amongst the team, you still have to take full responsibility. As the leader or founder of your business, there is no one to tell you if you are doing well or not. There is no one to tell you what to do next. There is no one to tell you when to go to work, or more importantly when to stop. You can’t blame someone else if things aren’t going well because there is no one else to blame. You are fully responsible for everything you create, the outcomes of your choices and your own wellbeing in the process. (Oh wait… that’s all just like life as an adult human being. Except now it’s more obvious because there’s nothing to hide behind. You can’t blame the system because you are the system). This is not to say that you should beat yourself up about things not working out because that’s just part of the process. Sometimes there are things which are simply out of your control. So the best you can do is to trust the heck out of your intuition, trust and tap into the collective intelligence of your team or your surroundings, keep learning, take responsibility, keep holding onto your vision and be brave to put down your shield. There, being a leader isn’t so hard after all, right?

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