It’s the championship game. There are 6 seconds left, and your team is down by 4. You’ve got the ball, but it’s fourth and goal on your opponents’ 3-yard line. A field goal isn’t enough. You only have one option. You go for it, all or nothing.
You have the perfect play for this situation. It’s a fake to the running back and a quick toss over the outside shoulder of your star wide receiver in the corner of the end zone. The team has practiced the play hundreds of times. They’re ready.
You call the play and stand nervously on the sideline. You’ve been the one on the field when it’s all on the line. You’ve been in their shoes. You’ve thrown that same pass so many times by now you could do it in your sleep.
But you’re coaching now. Now, you lead from the sideline. There’s nothing you can do at this moment but hope that everything you’ve done to prepare your team is enough.
The quarterback gets the ball, fakes to the running back, and it works; the defense bites and collapses on the hole in the line. It’s only been a split second, but so far, everything is going to plan.
But then you look at your receiver. Horror. He’s blocking. He’s not running the route. You know what needs to happen. You know where the ball is going. You know he won’t be there.
What do you do?
You take off faster than even you thought possible. You race down the sideline, onto the field, into the back corner of the end zone, and make the catch!
And the crowd goes wild!
Except they don’t.
Eighty thousand people in one place, and you could hear a pin drop.
Not even the broadcasters know what to say. Everyone is speechless.
You do your end zone dance, but the scoreboard doesn’t change.
Then you see them. Little yellow flags everywhere. And men in black and white stripes running toward you.
“Unsportsmanlike conduct. Fifteen yards from the spot of the foul.”
Game over. You lost.
Your team stands shocked. Both players and coaches are still processing what happened. Some shake their heads. Others hang theirs in shame.
Everyone wonders, “Did that really just happen?”
Okay, this is ludicrous. Crazy.
No one in their mind would ever do it. In the history of professional football championships, it has never happened.
But is it really all that crazy? Is it truly unheard of?
Not by a long shot
I see this same scenario happen every day, not on the sports field but in the companies, churches, and nonprofits I work with. I see leaders leap from their sidelines, make the diving catch, only to get up and wonder why no one cheers and everyone, including them, is so exhausted.
The answer is surprisingly simple. Even though you’ve been CEO since the day you started your organization, your position has changed and will go through 7 distinct transformations. To altogether avoid the exhaustion and frustration many of us have come to accept as just part of the deal, all you need to do is recognize how your role has changed and act accordingly.
The dynamism of leadership
Leadership is anything but static. It’s constantly changing. The moment you finally get your hands wrapped around a challenge, it seems like the rug is pulled out from under you, and a brand new challenge stands in front of you–one that you are almost certainly unprepared to face.
I love it!
And I’d be willing to bet you do too (or at least you did, but we’ll get to that later).
We love the challenge. We love the change. We love the character it builds in those who stay in the game, adapt to the changes, and roll with the punches. We love knowing there is always more, that there is always a new hill to conquer and another mountain to scale. No matter how much you’ve grown as a leader, there is more to learn. You have room to grow and another adventure on which to embark.
And while I love the challenge, few things break my heart like seeing a great leader stall. It’s easy to feel the sting of potential (or present) defeat and fall back to what we know and trust, what we’re good at. And in doing so, we sell ourselves short, not because we aren’t good at what we do, but precisely because we are good at what we do.
You see, the greatest trap leaders, even great leaders, fall into is to create so much success at one stage of leadership that they are necessarily thrust into the next. In and of itself, this is hardly a problem. You could even say that is the goal.
The problem lies, instead, in our response.
Here’s how our thinking goes:
“What got me here is XYZ, and the better I got at XYZ, the more my influence, income, and/or impact grew.”
“So the keys to my success are XYZ.
“When I face a new challenge, I’ll employ XYZ, and I’ll become more successful.”
You and I know it doesn’t work this way. It’s the coach trying to make the catch and save the day for his team and breaking everything instead.
However, you and I act this way every single day. All great leaders do. At least to some extent.
How do I know? Because that’s what made them great leaders.
Great leaders become great leaders by doing more of what works than anyone else around them.
And that works until it doesn’t.
It works until it doesn’t
And that’s the key. How do you know when your current leadership strategy is going to expire?
That’s what this extended articles series is all about. I’m going to show you the seven distinct stages a founder goes through as she grows her organization and her leadership.
More importantly, I will show you the seven transition points and the thresholds that stand between each stage. The ones that trip up unknowing leaders every single day.
But you don’t have to trip. You can step right over each threshold and keep on running, so long as you know where it is, and you know how to step. While that changes at each stage, it is, as you will see, highly predictable.
I will teach you how to look around the corner at what is coming in your development as a leader.
Who this series is for
I love founders. They are collectively and individually my heroes. Brave men and women who leave the comfort and security of their current circumstances to try and make something new. Each and every one of them is an underdog; the odds stacked heavily against them.
When it comes to leadership, theirs is the most visible endeavor. Most founders out there today are leading at the highest level they’ve ever led. They are leading the largest organization they’ve ever led. And the vast majority of them are doing it without any semblance of a map.
And when they fail, which they do with great regularity, everyone sees it. There’s no hiding at the top of an org chart. There’s no slipping away when it’s your signature scribbled on all the documents. There’s no one else to take over when you’re out of your depth.
And for these reasons, I am writing specifically to those who founded their organization.
While this series is explicitly directed at those who took the brave but fraught step of starting their own organizations, the principles at play are true in every leadership evolution. So, even if you haven’t started your organization, there is plenty in this series for you to learn.
A universal pattern
First, as I mentioned, these principles apply to every leadership evolution. While the anecdotes and some phraseology may differ from your circumstance, the truth behind the words stands true.
And this isn’t me tooting my own horn. As a leader, I spent the first decade of my working life rushing through these stages. It was whiplash at best. I was succeeding, but it sure didn’t feel like it on most days. I was, in the words of the great Bon Jovi, “living on a prayer.” I even had the Bon Jovi hair for a stint, but we won’t go there.
It wasn’t until I started coaching and consulting that the patterns suddenly came into focus. When you are at the ground level, it is exceptionally challenging to see the patterns at play. But once you zoom out, it’s much easier to see the big picture. I’ve had the fortunate experience of being able to zoom out. To witness a volume of stories that are not my own and recognize the repetition that occurs again and again in every story.
And it’s not just me.
As these stages began to take shape in my mind, I started to look outward for validation. However, I couldn’t look to leadership books that all suffered the same myopia I once had for one reason or another.
Fortunately, the answer hit me when I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Story nerds will know who that is, but for the busy leaders reading this article, suffice it to say that Joseph Campbell is “The Godfather” of modern story structure. He identified a pattern called the Hero’s Journey. As I read through the different stages of the hero’s journey, I realized Campbell had identified the very same path that I have seen countless founders journey. We were using different language, but we were describing the same truth. And when I saw that same truth come through a profoundly different source, I realized this was more than a few anecdotes I experienced along the way.
There is a universal pattern at work. If we can understand that pattern and identify where we are within it, we can accurately and effectively determine what we need to do to succeed NOW.
The aha moment
I’ve had the privilege of hearing the stories of countless founders. And one thing I noticed was how frequently they all had an aha moment, an epiphany; some may even say a calling. Of course, it happened well before they ever became a “founder,” but it was a pivotal point in their story and their career.
The second reason for this series is you may be reading this as a pre-founder. You may not have words for it, but you have been feeling inner angst starting to build. You may be wondering if you have what it takes. You are stuck between the belief that there is a better way and the doubt that you’d ever be the one to make it happen.
If so, guess what?
Your founder’s evolution has already begun. You are in Founder’s Evolution Stage 1: The Dissatisfied Employee. And that’s the topic of our next article.
The road ahead
Before we go any further, I want to quickly list all seven stages for you as they will serve as a roadmap for this article series and your journey through the Founder’s Evolution.
- Stage 1: The Dissatisfied Employee
- Stage 2: The Startup Entrepreneur
- Stage 3: The Reluctant Manager
- Stage 4: The Disillusioned Leader
- Stage 5: The Chief Executive
- Stage 6: The True Owner
- Stage 7: The Visionary Founder
A position on a sports team will illustrate each stage. If you don’t know sports, that’s no problem at all. You’ll be able to follow right along with no problem.
For each stage, I’ll also share several key facets about the stage that will help you to identify when you’ve stepped into the stage, succeed in that stage, and recognize when that stage has come and gone.
As we work through the series together, you’ll find that one question defines each stage. You will find these seven questions to be surprisingly illuminating and, if viewed correctly, profoundly challenging. My hope is that if you remember nothing else, you will remember these questions because they are the very beating heart of your evolution as a founder!
A final note
I’ve helped start over 20,000 organizations, businesses, churches, schools; you name it. I’ve helped men and women, and I’ve seen both succeed and fail. I’ve been a founding member of multiple businesses, a church, and an international ministry, and I’ve seen some succeed and some fail.
Having had the rare experience of sitting at the intersection of the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds for my whole career and seeing such an enormous volume of founders’ stories, I can tell you that this pattern holds true no matter what type of organization the founder is starting.
I may use words and phrases like business world or he or organizational or she, but I’m doing so for the sake of simplicity and not to identify a specific subset. If I need to identify a particular group to highlight an important nuance, I’ll state that clearly. Otherwise, you can assume, regardless of the phrase, that it applies to you.
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