It might be surprising to say that humility is a good quality in someone whose job it is to disrupt industries and sell their business to investors.
Especially as humility is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
“The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.”
I disagree with this definition as it suggests that humble founders should have low self esteem or lack confidence. That’s terrible quality in a leader!
Founders and egotism
The old saying “fake it ‘till you make it” could be helpful sometimes, but it’s not doing any good in the startup industry. A huge issue in the startup industry is egotistical behaviour from founders, because they think it will make them successful.
Success in startups depends on having a charismatic leader capable of steering the team to victory. This can easily cause some people to get carried away.
Some founders think that charisma is something that can be put on or learned from a book. Most self-help books tell you to show confidence to the world. If other people believe it, it will become true.
That’s wrong. True charisma comes from within, and it’s founded on humility.
With this in mind, humility is defined as:
“the ability to accurately assess yourself and your good and bad qualities.”
You can look within and admit to your mistakes. You can take constructive feedback and criticism. You have the willingness to admit you’re not perfect.
Benefits of humility in startup founders
Research shows that companies with humble CEOs actually perform better than their counterparts with egotistical CEOs.
Investor Rajen Sanghvi talks about how being humble contributes to an ongoing ability to remain self-aware as a startup founder. It’s a quality that’s absolutely crucial to success.
Clear vision and judgement rests on the ability to look squarely at yourself and assess what you see there. You need to see all the information in order to make the right decisions, not only what flatters your ego.
It’s important to be able to indulge in achievements, but if you let it go to your head then you might miss the next opportunity for growth. It may also lead to a fear that the good times will end, and an inability to go with the natural peaks and troughs of business.
Humility helps founders to stay responsive to changes in the market.
A hugely important area in building a startup is creating the right company culture.
A startup founder can lead by example by openly learning from his or her mistakes, encouraging employees to do the same. This will improve business operations and foster a culture of continuous learning.
Humility and diversity
Female founders are critically underrepresented in the startup industry. Only 16% of US-based funded startups include at least one female founder, and a measly 3-4% of venture capitalists themselves are female.
Despite this, these female VCs have awarded female founders 30% of their funding.
Humility in founders helps startups – a traditionally male-dominated industry – achieve greater gender and racial equality.
Meetup founder Scott Heiferman publishes an incredible story, written by Jessi Hempfel, about his search for more diverse female tech talent in his company. His success was made possible by his humility.
First, he was honest about recognising the problem. Second, he reached outside of his usual networks to do something about it. And it worked.
The downsides of humility
In the cutthroat world of the startup industry, many people think that egotism is the best tactic for success.
You need a bit (or a lot) of ego to deal with the knocks of business, take risks and impress funders. (That’s another reason why they suggest that women are simply not cut out to work as founders).
Being humble may result in founders reaching decisions more slowly, and an unwillingness to take the spotlight. This risks inhibiting the startup’s growth.
But humility is not mutually exclusive with confidence and a willingness to soak up the limelight. It simply prevents the founder from seeking fame and attention for its own sake.
A new way of business
The traditional approach to business advocates projecting the most confident and powerful image possible to build trust in your company and attract investors.
Covering up mistakes and weaknesses is essential, as is developing a culture of secrecy and damage control.
It’s founded on a belief that weaknesses will be seized on by your competition and exploited to their advantage.
Humble founders adopt a mindset of growth and development, seeing not ‘mistakes’ and ‘weaknesses’ but opportunities to learn and move forwards. They seek openness and collaboration, and as a result, build trust in their company to attract investors.
Covering up your mistakes probably made sense in a pre-internet era, but the startup industry is built on foundations of openness and accessibility.
You need to take control and project a positive image of your company, rather than trying to suppress negative stories.
Lack of humility may have enabled some startup founders to achieve world-domination by giving them the ability to make choices that others wouldn’t. But these are outliers.
On the whole, humility is an essential quality for most startup founders because it keeps them grounded. It’s easy to become a victim of your own success once your startup starts to do well, but humility ensures you don’t get carried away.
Humility can help founders to tackle the diversity problem by encouraging them to admit that their companies can improve, and then do whatever’s necessary to find those talented diverse hires.
Humility helps build a positive company culture which is the backbone of your startup. The founder leads by example, and if you’re honest with yourself and strive to keep learning, others will be drawn to you.
It helps you remember that your customers – not you – are everything.
Being humble and open makes you more human to your customers, your investors, and your team members. It enables you to build and keep your tribe, which ultimately helps make your startup a success.
If you liked this blog post, you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how we can work together.
Image: Brooke Cagle, Unsplash