Dispelling the myths of scaleup leadership
April 4, 2024

Dispelling the myths of scaleup leadership

Leadership is big business. 

According to Market Research Guru, the corporate leadership development market will be worth just over $15bn by 2028. There is no shortage of advice on what it takes to be a leader.

Unfortunately, much of the advice perpetuates an outdated, ego-centric stereotype of leadership: work hard/play hard; smart leaders excel; the need to stay one step ahead of the rest of the business; leaders save the day; leaders are always available. 

Not only do these 'qualities' of leadership develop and nurture an unhealthy work culture and environment, but they also set unrealistic expectations against which we hold ourselves accountable.

This article will debunk some of these myths that set us up to fail. 

They are unhelpful. They make the transition from founder to leader much more challenging to do. Far too often, they become the prevailing script, undermining our confidence and ability to take bold steps and create the kind of scaleup acceleration we desire.

Myth #1: It's all about working harder

"Work hard, and you will succeed", reference: unknown. 

I always reference my quotes and materials. I believe it is important to recognise your sources and credit the original idea and thinker. 

But, in truth, I've got no idea who to attribute this idea to. It could be my mum. My first schoolteacher. My classmates. The internet at large. Or even Chat GPT. 

The fact is that this cliche has become so hardwired into our psyche that it is viewed as a truism in today's world.

But just how 'true' is it? 

Whether just starting your own business or scaling up, many of you innately live your working lives (and sacrifice your 'life' lives) in favour of working harder. 

Just answering a couple more emails before logging off. Taking one more call. Going to one more meeting. Squeezing in one more project. You continue to load more and more tasks into the finite time you have in an attempt to live up to this mythical goal of the successful pot of gold at the end of the work-hard rainbow.

The reality? 

Yes, you need to put in the effort, dedicated focus, and hard work. But effective scaleup leadership requires us to have the time and space to think strategically, be creative, and enable the creative spark and ingenuity of our teams. 

Another cliche alert: work smarter rather than harder. This will enable us to sustain our growth, develop the capabilities around us, and collectively navigate the complex challenges ahead. 

So, what exactly does working smarter really involve? 

In our world, working smarter means getting to know your own working habits and style, being mindful and intentional in developing habits to enhance your approach, embracing technology and automation to systemise and streamline what you can, inviting your team to participate and take ownership and creating the collective energy to thrive. 

This gives us the space and freedom to be creative, adapt and feel energised for the future.

Maybe, the saying should be, 'Play smarter, rather than work harder'? 😁

Myth #2: We have a vision, and we stick to it 

Everyone believes that leaders are visionary. To be a great leader, one must have a clear vision of the way ahead. 

Certainly, when we get a startup off the ground, put in the hard graft to develop our initial value proposition, find our first clients, and prove the value of our approach, a belief and a vision of what could be drive these early days. 

But is your vision too tunnel-focused? Is it too narrow? 

We have to be able to pivot. To adapt. To learn about what is working and what is not, and evolve our offer from this point. 

If we don't, we fail. We blindly continue to try to deliver a product or service that no one wants. 

Talk about pissing into the wind.

Yes, it is great to have a future vision. This gives you and the team a shared direction for your efforts. (By the way, we also believe it is critical to establish a clear collective purpose - a solid understanding of why your business exists and why your work matters.)

But successful scaleup leaders recognise the need for flexibility and adaptation. The world is rapidly changing. Your customer's needs are evolving.

To scale, you must be able to execute and deliver on current needs AND embrace agility to iterate and lead your customers towards future needs.

Myth #3: Leaders must have all the answers

We've all been there: sitting in our team meeting, having just been asked a question. We know we want the team to make the best decision, but we are not convinced they will know what the best decision is. 

We do. It is our business, our baby. We must have all the answers. And surely that is what the team expects of us? Leaders must have all the answers.

This myth is deeply rooted in how we are educated and how our society works. 

Authority figures know best.

You might have heard of the Milgram experiments, a set of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

The point of the experiments was to measure how willing study participants were to blindly obey an authority figure, even if it involved inflicting pain on another human being.

Participants were told they were helping other "learners" (volunteers) to improve their ability to memorise new content.

The researchers played the part of teachers but wore white scientific coats—a clear sign of their authority in the experiment.

The central participants of the study assisted in administering electric shocks (not real) to the "learners" when they answered incorrectly. 

The voltage ranged from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger).

Amazingly, out of the 40 participants in the study, every single one of them increased the voltage to 300 volts under the 'guidance' of the authority figure. 65% of them went up to the maximum 450 voltage.

What can we learn from this? 

We are hardwired to expect authority figures to have the answer. So, leaders must also know the answer.

The reality? It is simply not possible for any leader to know everything. 

The complex, dynamic nature of the modern world of work makes this even more impossible.

To scale up successfully, you must recognise the value of collaboration, learning from others, and bringing unique expertise and diverse opinions together. Build strong teams and enable contribution and shared collaborative working to maximise your scaleup success. 

Myth #4: We can't afford to make mistakes

Ok. So, mistakes can be costly. Some mistakes can be gigantic. They can even be tragic and cost livelihoods and lives.

Blockbuster turned down a proposal from Netflix to look after their digital business while Blockbuster maintained the physical store operation.

The boss of Intel turned down the opportunity to manufacture and supply the iPhone processors, as they thought Apple would not sell enough to cover the cost of development.

The 'unsinkable' Titanic had a fundamental flaw in the design of the bulkheads, which made the ship eminently sinkable.

But, for most of us, the decisions we face don't stack up on this scale.

Mistakes help us learn. Mistakes enable us to do something differently. We have to ensure we learn from them.

Does that mean that you should take lots of risks? No. You don't have to throw all caution to the wind. There will always be risks in building your business to the next level. You need to take calculated risks.  And enable those around you to make decisions, take some risks, and make mistakes if needed. 

From time to time, we deliver a workshop for our clients that raises more than a few eyebrows.

We call it, "F*ck ups do happen... learn from them!"

In the workshop, we talk about our own f*ck ups openly. These are the things that we prefer not to talk about but are vital. We get the founders to share their f*ck ups. It helps the team feel ok about talking about f*ck ups.


Because if we don't talk about them, people brush them under the carpet. 

They spend time covering up. They hide what has happened. Time, effort, and energy go into 'pretending' something didn't happen. 

Rather than owning it, talking about it, and finding a resolution.

Stop trying to not make mistakes.


Make mistakes.

Openly talk about them.


Do something differently.

Myth #5: Scaling up means losing control

We all like to feel that we are in control of what is happening. It's natural.

We want to control things around us. We don't like not feeling in control. 

So, when we expand and take on a bigger team, we want to control everything that is going on around us.

This is how growing organisations start to embed controls in their ways of working. Formalising what people do or say. Standardising processes. Putting in control mechanisms. Introducing sign-off processes and approvals.

What are these 'controls' really?

They are examples of bureaucracy.

Control mechanisms that dictate stop people from thinking for themselves and making decisions. They undermine autonomy. They undermine creative thought. If not tamed, they stop your team from taking action and making an impact.

We call this the 'plateau of process', where the growth of scaleup businesses is held back by increased processes and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Instead, opt for finding your minimum viable process. 

Where you can feel in control without needing to control.

What's holding you back?

These are just a few of the top myths we hear from founders transitioning to leaders. Where a focus on hard work leads to long hours and declining productivity. Where a laser-like focus on a narrow future vision begins to hinder the business's ability to adapt and be agile. Where founders feel that because they are in the leadership role, they have to have all the answers. Where avoiding mistakes leads to risk-aversion and lost learning opportunities. Where being fearful of losing control becomes a constraint on the scaleup growth potential.

What myths are you holding on to?

How are they holding you back from making the shift to leader?

And more importantly, how are they holding your scaleup business back from thriving?

Written by Barry McNeill | Founder and Managing Director of Work Extraordinary

Barry has over 25 years supporting leaders and teams to be more effective in driving business outcomes, such as growth, customer service and impact. He and his team have helped numerous founders, founding teams and growing organisations to develop new ways of working to achieve scaleup growth, enhanced culture, improved operational effectiveness and customer impact. You can connect with Barry through his social channels at the top of this page.

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