Starting a company is, in large part, an act of ego. When that business is a startup, the ego component is even larger. This is a good thing.
Ego is what gives the founder the confidence to create something new. Ego powers the belief that the new thing the founder creates will be good enough to change the way that tens, thousands, even millions of people live their lives. Maybe we don’t always call this ego -- maybe we call it vision, or confidence, or passion -- but the idea is the same.
But as important as ego is to the founding of a company, it is also corrosive to the creation of a good culture. Unbridled ego becomes arrogance. It doesn’t allow for other people to achieve and contribute. Founders who do not keep their egos in check are unwilling to acknowledge the help given to them by others, and have a hard time building and retaining great teams.
To start a company founders need ego, but to build a great company, founders need to be modest. Modesty is what allows founders to see all the things that contribute to their success, especially the things over which they have no control. With modesty, founders can see the important role of luck in their success. They can recognize, acknowledge, and reward the part played by cofounders, employees, and customers. They’re resilient when things go wrong because they can see beyond themselves.
The interplay between ego and modesty is obvious when you hear founders talk about their companies. As a company grows, the best founders increasingly talk about “We” and not just “I.” Every discussion about the achievements of the company is a chance to highlight the contributions of other people and of the organization overall.
This isn’t to say that the best founders disappear into the background of their own companies. The “I” still plays a strong part. It remains the founder’s job to consistently set the vision and the example for every employee. When that goes away, a company risks moving into stasis or decline.
Perhaps the most important place to use “I” over the life of a company is when things go wrong. When figuring out what happened, and who bears responsibility for fixing a problem, “We” is insufficient and even dangerous. In that case, modesty doesn’t drive the use of “We,” arrogance does. Arrogance won’t allow a founder to admit that he was wrong, so he slides to “We” to cover for it, to blame the organization. But diffuse blame means that no one figures out what actually happened and how to fix it. Do that often enough, and the badness grows until it kills the company.
It’s tough to balance “I” and “We” and it gets harder as a company grows and becomes more successful. As a company does better, the easiest stories for the press to write are those about the genius of the founders. At the same time, as more and more things happen at a company that the founders don’t directly touch, founders may start to feel disconnected from the thing that they created. This is a hard thing to face, and some founders respond to it by claiming sole credit for successes that are the work of many people. From the other side, as the company grows, some founders fade into the background and stop providing the singular vision and leadership that the company needs to succeed.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer as to how to strike the right balance, nor is there a single paradigm for what works best. What does seem clear, though, is that founders need to keep these questions in mind, and, if they find themselves only using “I” or only using “We,” to think long and hard about what they might be missing.
Thank you, Colleen Taylor, for your edits.