Which leadership qualities are essential? (according to 120 start-up founders)

Ryan Welmans

Posted on: May 4, 2020

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Category: Business

Which leadership qualities are essential? (according to 120 start-up founders)

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The thing about start-up founders is…

The thing about start-up founders is there is no single thing you can say about start-up founders.

What’s true for one is typically not true for another: by their nature founders are mavericks, occasionally eccentric and always single-minded followers of a vision.

So, we weren’t surprised when we got 120 of them to sit down, as part of our Sofa Series, and tell us what three qualities they associated with successful founders that many didn’t play ball.

Some gave just one quality, some provided only two, a few stuck to the remit and supplied three while others sailed nonchalantly passed the prescribed limit.

But these things have a habit of balancing themselves out.

From the 120 results we ended up with 368 answers which is, as close as damn it, bang on what we were expecting.

What we weren’t expecting, however, was the unity of the responses.

What did our founders answer?

There were three absolutely clear winning qualities and just 14 mentioned in total.

A truly unexpected unanimity.

Let’s share our results with no further ado – we’d hate to leave you waiting.


Leadership qualities


As you can see there were three runaway winners, followed by five popular qualities and six other also-rans.

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The runaway three

  • Nearly half of all our founders mentioned focus or resilience as an essential quality
  • 44% spoke of passion and belief
  • And 38% opted for the ability to delegate or its corollary the knack of building an effective team around themselves

Before looking at the second tranche, let’s allow the founders to speak for themselves about why they consistently picked the top three qualities.

Many founders mentioned every one of the three without barely pausing for a breath.

Determination is the single most important quality an entrepreneur can have. You’ll win, you’ll lose, you’ll get knocked down. But you’ll always maintain that stubborn belief, persevere and find a way.

The ability to attract, develop and lead a team. The ability to attract and hire great people, is the cornerstone of any successful founder or business. Having a team that you can empower to support you and enable growth and scale is essential.

Every successful founder has a clear vision of where they are going and what they are trying to achieve. Without this clarity you can’t focus your efforts, your determination or your team.
Neil Purcell 

Successful entrepreneurs have a vision of how they believe they can impact other people’s lives. They are brave enough to start pursuing that vision irrelevant of the odds of success or lack of support received. They persevere until they accomplish the task.

They take care of people around them. No matter how successful, you’ll never be fulfilled on your own.
Minday Plauska

Here are some other examples where the themes of focus/resilience, passion/belief and delegation/team building weave their way persistently through the responses.

Focus and persistence

Grit – the start-up journey is normally longer than most people imagine and likely more perilous. You will be knocked down more times than you think and it takes grit to keep on getting back up.
Adam Edgell-Bush
Tenacity, focused energy, having a clear and definite purpose, and not losing sight.
Alastair Bell
Resilience – the entrepreneurial journey is neither easy nor straightforward. It takes time and effort.
Alessandra Schmidt
Grit, determination, hope.
Angel Maldonado
Resilience and a getting shit done approach.
Carlos Doughty
Never give up and stay focused on the necessary actions more than the final results.
Irina Vasile    

Passion and belief

Share your vision for the business with enthusiasm and energy. Communication is key – if everyone knows what they’re working towards, you’ll all be on track to deliver the outcome.
Pavan Riyat-Ward
Show passion in everything you do – passion breeds passion and if teams witness passion for projects, clients or general work from the top, this will be bred into their work and general outlook.
Stephen Gorman
Dream big, stay positive and motivate others: as Ralph Lauren said ‘A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved. He inspires the power and energy to get it done.’
Alan Waxman
Vision, energy and focus.
James Briscoe  
Follow your North Star.
Susan Hallam

Delegate and build your team

Delegate – Don’t be afraid to give team members highly responsible tasks. Showing you trust them will give them greater confidence.
Matthew Pavli
Mentor and empower your team. Trust them to deliver and always recognise their achievements – this drives their confidence and a willingness to always deliver.
Pavan Riyat-Ward
Get a business partner or board members that have experience and skill in areas you are weak.
Gary Hunter
Delegation – it’s crucial to realise what you are good at and what you are not good at. Stick to what you are good at and delegate other tasks to team members who have a more suited skillset.
Stephen Gorman
Don’t micro manage – give individuals and the team a clear direction and brief and then let them get on with it! Know your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Play to individual strengths and continuously assess and develop skills and knowledge gaps.
Steve Bax           

Other dominant themes

Each representing between a fifth and a quarter of all responses, these qualities also came up:

  • Creative thinking/adaptability (25%)
  • Trusting and listen skills (23%)
  • Transparency, accountability and honesty (21%)
  • Inspirational and motivational communicator (18%)
  • Financial, customer and business awareness (18%)

It’s interesting that having a dream is significantly more important than having defined business skills – and it’s also interesting that the emphasis on focus appears to clash with the desired adaptability.

Let’s pick up on the last point here, as it is often directly addressed by the founders themselves as you can see in Andrew Edgell-Bush’s three founder traits:

Grit – the start-up journey is normally longer than most people imagine and likely more perilous. You will be knocked down more times than you think and it takes grit to keep on getting back up.

Strong opinions, weakly held – indecision costs both money and time, but you often lack data to inform your direction of travel. How to balance this? Be committed, but validate along the way.

Humility – if you are never wrong, you are not experimenting enough. Accept that the market and others will know more than you.
Adam Edgell-Bush

You’ll see similar formulations of this in the following quotes.

A dogged determination to be successful and to evolve the product mix with the market, as there is no point trying to sell something that nobody wants anymore, but realizing this may take you away from your initial dream.
Mike Utting
Vision, grounded in reality. Dream big and look to the future, but keep a close eye on the present. Listen to your customers, who are the foundation of everything you do.
Lucy James
Above all, the most important quality I would associate with successful founders is a mindset of passionate ideas loosely held. This dual, seemingly conflicting, mindset combines passion with being genuinely sceptical and self-challenging.
Jordan Schlipf
Never give-up, but know when to stop. Passion and drive will ultimately make you a success, but keeping a check on reality will help you know when it’s best to change direction or stop what you’re doing and look for the next opportunity.
James Chapman
Adaptability – Persevere with your vision, but don’t be blinkered or closed off to the reality of the market or to other opportunities that present themselves.
Jack De Glanville
Founders need to be brave – prepared to make decisions alone and stand by them. But they also need to remain humble enough to accept when they are wrong, and to know when to listen to others.
Bridgette Cameron        

Last but not least

The final tranche of qualities that made the list were mentioned 70 to 85% less than the chart topper. Yet each still was mentioned by between a tenth and a fifth of all the founders we consulted.

They were:

  • Self-development (16%)
  • Compassion/Understanding (14%)
  • Level-headed/balance (13%)
  • Practical skills (12%)
  • Quick decision making (8%)
  • Consistency/fairness (8%)

As part of balance many referred to work/life balance – in stark contrast to other founders who swore blind that a 100% work ethic and nothing less would help.

A balanced lifestyle: We’ve all read the stories about entrepreneurs who work 16 hours a day and don’t take a day off for months on end. But I personally believe that balance is key to success. Working hard is necessary, but so is rest. I’ve learnt from experience that spending time away from work to refresh will only amplify results and allow me to work more efficiently and productively.
Andrew Fennell
Devote yourself to the business: if you’re a founder, you need to throw yourself at the business to make it a success. 9-5 doesn’t apply to you: you need to be willing to do whatever it takes to build the momentum the business needs to get going.
Louis Georgiou

Practical skills also tended to refer to the idea of pitching in and being part of the team.

For instance:

Be passionate about your brand and always be ready to roll your sleeves up when heavy lifting is required to move things forward.
Michael Donald

And finally…

As we said we were surprised at the unanimity of the responses from such a diverse bunch.

Here’s a few other things to bear in mind.

  • Nearly 50% of founders see focus and persistence as one of three (or four, or five, or two) vital leadership qualities
  • Being consistent was mentioned 85% less than focus
  • Adaptability tempers focus with nearly a third mentioning the former
  • The top three are miles ahead of other qualities. In fact, there is a 53% difference between the fourth most-mentioned quality (adaptability) and the bottom of the top three (delegation and team building)

And there’s plenty more gems to share from our Sofa Series to come.

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