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Killer Startup Instincts

A stranger comes out of nowhere and physically attacks your child. What do you do?

Here’s what you don’t do: you don’t ponder the importance of the situation, you don’t contemplate your actions, and you don’t delegate the problem to the best-suited individual.

Before you know it, blood drains from your head into your muscles, adrenaline spikes high, and your heart rate doubles. You find the biggest or sharpest object you can find, and go straight in. No analysis and zero mercy.

You become ruthless.

As leaders in the workplace, we don’t need to be ruthless. Except for when we do.

Ruthless Leadership

Ruthless leadership is when a leader throws collaboration, delegation, and niceties out the window and solves a problem with their bare hands. Putting all else aside, assessing the situation with their own eyes, leading by micromanaging, and maintaining a tight grip until the situation is resolved.

The hardest thing about ruthless leadership is knowing when to activate it. When your child is under assault it’s pretty obvious, but in business, ruthless situations are not instinctively obvious.

There are 3 types of scenarios that command ruthlessness:

  • A direct threat to your business - the best example is running out of money. You either solve this problem or your business is gone

  • Nobody else can do it - some problems can only be solved by you. A pivot is something that only a founder can execute. Mass layoffs are another

  • Loss of momentum - this is the toughest situation to identify because it slowly creeps on you. But momentum loss is the silent startup killer

When in doubt, get your team’s perspective. A reliable tell is when nobody else is taking ownership or willing to take ownership, and everybody tells you that they expect you to do it.

Ruthlessness: Activated

Ruthlessness is a mindset shift. It feels like this:

  • I need to maintain healthy business operations -> everything is meaningless aside from this one threat

  • I have great people I can trust -> I am the only person who can fix this

  • Let’s use a good collaborative process here -> I know what I’m doing and everyone must follow as I say

It is trusting your instincts and taking command.

The biggest business and product breakthroughs I’ve ever seen were driven by a ruthless mind. A Facebook war room successfully shipping an unshippable product, a strategic shift that saved our startup, and a ruthless pivot from solving the wrong problem to the right one.

Staying Human

I am not a ruthless leader.

I have missed opportunities to save my startup from a threat or take it to the next level because I was too collaborative, too gentle, and too timid. It’s my biggest meta-failure as a leader, according to my entire team at least. I am writing this to develop my own killer instincts.

Now just before you transform into a ruthless animal, consider this: ruthlessness is the wrong mindset almost all of the time. The best leaders are collaborative, empowering, and humble. The best companies have open cultures. Business is a logical pursuit that is rarely violent.

But when your child is under attack, you know what must be done. And you do it ruthlessly.


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