“At my signal, unleash hell.” – Gladiator
Leadership in a fast growing start-up is not like Fortune 500 leadership, or personal leadership or early stage leadership. It is a unique animal – requiring unique traits, unique stick-to-it-iveness, and unique discipline. I call it Gladiator Leadership. Teddy Roosevelt, one of my favorite presidents, captured the essence of Gladiator Leadership:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So what is Gladiator Leadership?
Be in the Arena: There are leaders who are spectators – who travel between TED talks and Board Meetings and try to get early exits for non-existent businesses. My idols are the ones in the arena, engaging in the hand-to-hand combat of fighting real and imagined beasts, alongside great teams.
Lead by Example: The leader of the gladiators holds himself or herself to the standards he or she would expect of the team. They share the great enthusiasm of victory and take personal responsibility for the failures.
Believe in the Mission: All great companies start with a real mission. “The Everything Store.” “Organize the world’s information.” “A computer on every desktop.” For us at BloomReach, it is about “BloomReaching the web – making every digital experience relevant to every consumer in every interaction on every device.” Gladiator leaders drive to the long-term mission – always (even when shiny objects show up to distract).
Accept Sacrifice with Humility: Gladiator leadership is about sacrifice. In my case, it’s mostly a personal sacrifice around accepting that I can’t be the best dad in the world; that I’m not able to be there at every event of my kids. Professionally, it has often been about looking at the business dispassionately and being able to trade nearer term revenue to create something lasting.
Tackle the Beast in front of You: The arena is full of ugly beasts – financing events that don’t happen, people who disappoint you, products that fail. The gladiator leader sleighs the beasts in front of him or her with a force of will that no human being should be able to muster. You only get a shot at the mission if you survive another day, and that only happens if you focus on the most important problem in your life – the existential one. The one that means that you run out of money, lose big customers, bungle a big product or lose your team. Many leaders choose to ignore the beast; do so at your own peril.