3 Leadership Secrets Every Successful Startup CEO Knows Startups are delicate, and every move their leaders make can mean the difference between growth and failure.

By Lion Shirdan

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Startups embody a nuanced and mostly unexplored aspect of organizational performance. A promising business venture meets a typically young yet fervent workforce, resulting in the intersection of entrepreneurship and the demand for strong leadership. But startup teams require more precise leadership characteristics of their management than those of established corporations, as they typically have limited human and financial resources, less experienced employees, flat hierarchies and high time pressure.

So, how do effective startup CEOs tailor their leadership methodology to optimize company performance?

1. Formulate and nurture a clear vision

Behind every successful startup is a philosophy, a reason that company exists and a purpose it serves. It's the foundation of the firm, providing alignment, direction, focus and unity. However, while anyone can produce a great idea, very few people know how to carefully curate that vision from its inception.

The most important step in nurturing a company vision is communicating it to the workforce simply, clearly and often. This is essential to making employees at all levels feel connected to the company and their individual work. It also reassures low-level team members that they're making an impact, thereby boosting morale, productivity and positive company culture.

Reinforcing the company vision also protects the startup against burnout and lack of passion — two reasons behind the 5% of failed startups, according to a study conducted by CBInsights. A strong vision generates meaning and purpose for team members. As workloads accumulate and challenges grow, that meaning supports both leaders and employees through uncertainty.

Moreover, there eventually comes a time for delegating responsibility and leadership roles, at which point founder-CEOs will ask themselves, "Who understands this company, where it's going, and what it needs to get there?" Without a strong vision permeating the company, delegating leadership is akin to establishing pillars with unstable foundations, opening the door for failure and collapse.

Related: How to Engage Employees Through Your Company Vision Statement

2. Embrace strategic failure

The most experienced startup leaders I've worked with understand that failure is inevitable. And rather than avoiding that failure, they willingly confront it on their terms because no one learns from success.

Strategic failure can play a key role in one of the most important aspects of maintaining a startup. CBInsights reports that one of the primary causes (38% of cases) of failure in venture businesses is a lack of funding. Investors may exit for a myriad of reasons. But ultimately, it comes down to faith in leadership, making it vital for inexperienced founders to test their pitches in the field and instill that faith in themselves and the startup vision.

One common mistake young founders often make when searching for funding is pursuing the biggest investors with the most capital from the starting gate. Instead, they should start small, pitching to as many minor investors as possible. While this process will most likely lead to repeated failure, it also gives young leaders insight, experience and confidence at lower risk. When the time comes to pitch to the investors that matter most, they'll be prepared because they made failure their friend.

Related: Why Embracing Failure Is Good for Business

3. Eliminate the ego

Another major hurdle for young founder-CEOs is eliminating their ego from the startup equation. Many have labored over their ideas for years and are used to carrying 100% of the responsibilities, to the extent that every task and decision becomes personal. But once the company is up and running, it can no longer be solely about them. And that inflated sense of individualism can generate disharmony and team problems — the reason behind 18% of startup failures.

Since most startups work with limited human resources, being a team player is crucial to leading a motivated workforce and successful venture. Great startup leaders learn early to suppress their ego and accept that they can't do everything. Rather than hoarding responsibility, they share it. They establish concrete managerial hierarchies to avoid contending egos, but they also treat employees at every level like co-entrepreneurs, allotting responsibility and demonstrating trust in their team.

Once the ego is gone, only the company will remain. And a company is only as good as its workforce, from the C-level executives to the analysts and assistants. It is then the leader's duty, especially within a startup, to invest in his or her employees. This requires adopting aspects of transformational leadership, a methodology first introduced by James Macgregor Burns in 1978, which includes an element called individualized consideration. Leaders that adopt this quality embrace mentorship, attend to the needs of each employee and actively facilitate growth and development. In other words, great startup leaders enhance company performance and culture by optimizing the potential in every follower through personal engagement.

Related: Why A Big Ego Reduces Your Chance at Business Success

Today, most entrepreneurs neglect to consider and contextualize their leadership practice, perhaps because the topic seems trite or insignificant when weighed against greater startup quandaries like product efficiency and market alignment. But successful startup leaders know better. They devise and nurture a clear vision, embrace strategic failure and stifle their egos. They take responsibility for their influence and use it to positively impact employees, investors and organizational performance. They understand that startups are extremely delicate structures, and every move they make can mean the difference between growth and failure. Every move they make falls under leadership.

Wavy Line
Lion Shirdan

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Founding Partner & CEO

Lion Shirdan is an entrepreneur, creative director, strategic business advisor and marketing expert. He is the founder and CEO of multiple agencies, including UPRISE Management, a full-service marketing, branding and creative development agency.

Editor's Pick

A Father Decided to Change When He Was in Prison on His Son's Birthday. Now His Nonprofit Helps Formerly Incarcerated Applicants Land 6-Figure Jobs.
A Teen Turned His Roblox Side Hustle Into a Multimillion-Dollar Company — Now He's Working With Karlie Kloss and Elton John
3 Mundane Tasks You Should Automate to Save Your Brain for the Big Stuff
The Next Time Someone Intimidates You, Here's What You Should Do
5 Ways to Manage Your Mental Health and Regulate Your Nervous System for Sustainable Success

Related Topics

Growing a Business

The Best Way to Run a Business Meeting

All too often, meetings run longer than they should and fail to keep attendees engaged. Here's how to run a meeting the right way.


Working Remote? These Are the Biggest Dos and Don'ts of Video Conferencing

As more and more businesses go remote, these are ways to be more effective and efficient on conference calls.

Business News

'Do You Hate Me?': High School Teacher Shares Wild Emails He Receives From Students

Jordan Baechler teaches high school students in Ontario, Canada.

Life Hacks

The Top 5 All-Time Best Productivity Hacks You've Never Heard Of

Want to combat chronic procrastination? Use these top five productivity hacks to put an end to this debilitating nuisance.


I Accidentally Became a Successful Entrepreneur. Here Are 5 Mistakes I Learned to Avoid When Starting a Business

PR is, at its core, storytelling. And the story of my now-thriving solo-owned business has been fraught with as many mistakes as successes, as many fall down the ladder as steps up. It's from my missteps, in fact, that I learned even more than from my triumphs, and this article presents 5 of my biggest blunders on the road to a flourishing small business.