Empathic Discipline: The Secret To Startup Leadership

Modern startup culture finds itself at the inflection point of two very poorly understood ideas - the notions of ‘hustle’ and ‘empathy’. These two ideas are often seen as independent and conflicting approaches to company building, and founders, especially at the earliest stages, often find themselves leaning into one camp or another. As such they almost always end up neglecting the important value of the other, which can contribute to an array of people related issues - not namely a toxic culture, high churn on talent, and ineffective teams.

Let’s unpack these two ideas quickly...

Hustle

Hustle is the cliche but understandable hard-bloody-work that’s required to move fast and build something of real value in the startup world. It has warped over time from being a mindset for building with discipline, into an unhealthy cultural norm that places significant pressure and expectations on employees, and as a result, leaves little room for a life outside of work.

Empathy

Empathy is the importance of embracing the needs, feelings and humanity of the people in your team, and it has been fuelled by the increasing number of young people both in the workforce and in leadership positions. It still, however, is often conflated with ‘being soft’ or lacking real discipline, and is frequently mixed up in misrepresented narratives of ‘entitled millennials’.

So here lies the tension. On one hand, hustle focussed founders fear being seen as ‘soft’ and don't want to compromise on an ethic of excellence and hard work. On the other, empathy focussed founders are hesitant to enforce expectations of hard work or make hard decisions due to fear of upsetting their team or being seen as a bit tyrannical.

What I hope to show here, is that a culture of hard work and a culture of empathy are not independent ideas but a unified system, that when respected and deployed, can become an absolute superpower for a startup. I call this mindset - at the intersection of hard work and humanity - empathic discipline. These are the ideas and principles that guide it.


1: Motivate with a worthwhile mission

You’ll be surprised how much unrest amongst people and teams stems from a lack of real motivation due to a lack of clarity on whether they’re working on a mission that is truly worthwhile. A good mission is not only a guide for what you’re building, and how you’ll measure your success, but it is a powerful tool for inspiring and motivating teams to truly commit to the cause.

Taking the time to define a mission that ticks these boxes, and then reinforcing its importance at every opportunity, is a sure-fire way to keep teams engaged and inspired. A good mission should never solely be about financial gain - it should allude to a sense of impact way beyond this to truly resonate.

2: Clarify expectations by codifying your culture

If you fail to communicate what you value as an organisation, and how you want to work together, everyone will have their own interpretation. This can result in confused teams and a tonne of ineffective working practices. If you have a view on what excellence looks like to your organisation, spell it out. The most common manifestation of this, is a company's values or principles.

But let’s be clear, this is not your opportunity to make unhealthy and ethical working practices core to your success. For the best possible outcome, design and define your culture in partnership with your people. By giving them a chance to contribute and share their needs and feelings (you will be surprised just how much they align with your own), it ensures teams feel truly invested in the culture and arguably then have no excuse for not backing it and living it thereon.

3: Lead by example - but set the ceiling, not the floor

With a culture codified, as a founder, you must be the shining example. If you don’t do it, no-one else will. Modelling the culture is a vital aspect of empathic discipline but it is also important to bear in mind that no-one will ever live up to your same standards as a founder - neither should they be expected to.

You're giving them something to aspire to and work towards, not meet and match off the bat. They haven’t laid awake at night dreaming about the vision like you have, and arguably don’t have anywhere near as much skin in the game as you do, and therefore they will never live and breathe this business like you do.

4: Focus on outcomes, not output, to unlock accountability

Objective and goal-setting frameworks that contain clear measurement - such as OKRs - not only help individuals see where they can play their part, but it also supports and reinforces a culture of accountability. It moves you away from a culture of presenteeism, and toward a culture of impact.

What is important to remember is that someone not achieving their objectives is not a reason for punishment, but an opportunity to assess performance and hold the individual accountable for improvement. Even as a founder you should be holding yourself accountable or encouraging your team to do so for you. Without accountability, complacency reigns.

5: Empower with autonomy, but emphasise ownership

With a greater focus on clarity, comes greater alignment in people and teams. With greater alignment in people and teams, the greater the capacity to act and operate autonomously. With greater autonomy, people feel empowered and responsible - creating space for genuine innovation, creativity, and fulfilment.

And as they assume more responsibility, as a founder you should be clear that you expect them to take greater ownership - of every success and every failure. If people want more responsibility, they must be prepared to own the downsides too. And when they do, they should be used as opportunities for reflection and learning - not an excuse to take away their ownership.

6: Vulnerability and humanity is better on the table

Tensions rise in environments where people don’t feel like they can be themselves and forthright with how they’re feeling. It’s vital to create the space for people to be themselves - and be honest if they’re struggling - especially if your culture is one that has a high expectation of performance. People can’t be expected to be on top form all day every day, and you should expect and understand that your people have lives beyond work - and that will affect their work too.

As a founder, not only should you model this too, but you also need to be honest when you don’t have all the answers. You’d be surprised how powerful saying “I don’t know” can be for building trust with teams, and ensure people feel comfortable with not having the answers when questioned. The alternative is people telling you they know what to do, when they don’t. And that won’t go well for anyone.

7: Democratise only the right decisions

Involving your team in decisions that shape the business is vital in helping them feel invested and fuelling a culture of collaboration. But democracy only takes you so far. In fact, if you begin to involve your team in every major decision, it can both slow you down and also compromise your integrity as a leader (the more you ask for the teams view on where you’re supposed to be going, the less they’ll trust your ability to know the answers).

Just remember as a founder that your primary role is to own the narrative that ties everything together - what is your mission, your vision of the future, and the problem you are trying to solve. How you work together and how you solve said problem is better fuelled by the collective brains of a team, rather than one brain alone.


The above is only implemented effectively with self-awareness. When problems arise - and your instinct is to push harder or to ease off - check-in with yourself. Ask why your people might be acting the way they are and your role in that. Do they need greater motivation? Do they need greater clarity on what’s expected of them? Do they need to feel a greater sense of responsibility?

All of these questions call for you to do the hard work as a leader, not simply expect your team to change their behaviour overnight. Like most things, this will be a process - but open ears and an open mind will radically improve the chances of nurturing the culture you desire.

When all else fails, just remember that genuine empathy is knowing that people simply want clarity: on where you’re going, why it’s worth it, and what role they can play. With these to hand, a hard working, high performing culture isn’t far away.

Carl has been working with startups, scaleups and corporates at the intersection of brands and technology for over 10 years - with notable stints at luxury fashion brand Burberry, digital product studio ustwo and as a startup founder on personal CRM, Ping.

Carl supports both Forward Partners and our portfolio in using communications to align strategy and culture, and is passionate about building inclusive teams.

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