The Next Generation of Leaders

Last month, I described the improbable journey of Kurt Warner who went from bagging groceries to winning a Super Bowl.

To me, Warner’s story exemplifies not only what happens when preparation and talent meet opportunity, but also the display of innate leadership. While there are many components that go into leading, there is a class of leaders that have the ability to command devotion to the cause.

When you think about today’s digital world, you see many different types of leaders and the companies they have built or continue to build. Much has been written over the years about the Steve Jobs management and leadership style, for example.

Google’s founders identified early on the need to focus on product, and wisely brought in an outsider, Eric Schmidt, to guide the company’s growth throughout its formative years. Now, current CEO Larry Page is seen as one of the brightest leaders in the industry. Likewise, early “Zuck” and present-day Mark Zuckerberg are vastly different in terms of public profile and apparent management style.

So, if Jobs’ style was brash and direct while Page and Zuckerberg have evolved over the years, which companies have the right leadership to attract talent and investors?

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In pondering this, I reflected back to a recent conversation I had with a founder of a startup that has pivoted at least twice – each time moving for modest success, but not quite full realization of the original vision, to something familiar yet different enough to require a near reboot of the approach and product. I asked the head of this enterprise why people stayed; what was the appeal to keep focused and committed to a cause when the cause – and potentially a big reward for being an early employee – kept moving with the market and product?

After some deliberation, he replied: “The people believe.” He then explained that they bought into what the company was trying to achieve. They saw it as viable – and not just marginally, but in a big, lucrative way and they wanted to see the job through to that realization. And, while I don’t doubt a single word, I think he left out a key addendum to the original statement of belief – either intentionally or due to humility. That is, the people believe in him. It’s his vision and commitment they buy into.

Any time a business pivots, the vision and product change – often dramatically. So it can’t be that everyone believes the new thing is the right thing, otherwise they would not have worked so hard to make the original succeed. Nor would they largely stay onboard to accomplish the new thing. I believe the people buy into the founder, knowing that their trust placed in that individual will deliver them to the right spot.

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Surveying the current landscape, there are many companies with strong leaders and interesting products working in tandem. Some of the brightest have already been acquired (i.e. Instagram and Nest) while others continue to work toward their IPO. Perhaps the two most exciting companies for the future of media, commerce and communications are Pinterest (co-founded by Ben Silbermann) and Snapchat (co-founded by Evan Spiegel). In both cases, these are rapidly growing businesses that have not simply changed, but have completely rethought the way the industry should operate for the next generation of consumer power brokers.

What attracts me to each is the inevitable realization of vision in a company that has a seemingly obvious ceiling. Pinterest was long thought of as “the women’s browsing site” while Snapchat was the “kids’ sexting app.” While both depictions may be somewhat overstated, they are not so far from reality that they would be unbelievable if you had one day said, “Well, that site just never made the mainstream leap and was always … .” However, both appear on the cusp of realizing full adoption into the mainstream.

That leap happens because of vision. The faith to follow that vision happens because people – both inside the company and outside in the VC world and beyond – buy into what is sold by the founder and/or CEO. If you want to see the future of business, you have to watch the people who follow – not just follow the industry, but also individuals. When you find passionate followers, you will often find a passionate leader – a leader whose passion translates into winning.

*Homepage image via Shutterstock.

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