Alone in the crowd. The anguish of leaders

Being at the head of a start-up is an exercise that demands a lot from the founder, with potentially serious personal and professional costs if not addressed in the right way. But you can keep the equilibrium

Within the consensus that can be established in the very diverse world of entrepreneurship, one seems to be universal: the path is not easy. Anyone will say that starting a business from scratch is something that requires a lot of work, dedication and effort to reach even a minimally sustainable basis. And even then, the challenges are constant, complex and volatile. Elements that call for a strong (individual and collective) structure to climb this never-ending Everest can, when certain situations are not taken care of, lead to the premature death of a business or the emotional breakdown of the leader. It’s a real risk. “I think I felt the famous expression ‘alone in the crowd’,” says João Vasques as he recalled his experience at the helm of the start-up, Wazza. “I am an extremely demanding person with myself and the worst boss I could ever have. When things were bad, I would shut the door and try to steamroller over everything. Obviously, things did not go well. There were mood swings, appetite loss, increasing isolation and a feeling of ‘weakness and vulnerability’”. The situation was getting worse when disaster struck: I was knocked down by a car and thrown 40 metres through the air. My ‘life flashed before my eyes’. This violent collision taught him to look “at our vulnerabilities in a more open and uncomplicated manner”. Currently working in Talkdesk, there is no doubt that his big mistake “was not to ask for help, not to have someone to trust outside the start-up and his family, who he could use as a sounding board and seek advice from”.

Know how to delegate

This is an extreme case, but it shows a situation that requires more recognition – the isolation of the leader and the concentration in them (sometimes of their own doing) of the whole reason for the company’s existence. Ana Margarida Passos, director of the Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour Department at ISCTE, explains that people who usually succeed in this environment have “traits that separate them from others,” they have “communication and networking skills and above average resilience,” as well as other more emotional capacities that enable them “to cope with situations of greater stress”. When a person is very attached to their own idea, the seed of the company, it may be more “difficult to let other people be a part of the initial idea, and easy to create barriers,” although she admits research in this field is still at an early stage. Some company founders end up being very exposed to the worst risks arising from the pressure, which when exaggerated and given out in large doses can lead to “exhaustion”. It is important to realize that in this universe, “the pace of work is not determined by us, but mainly by the constraints of the context,” that is to say, entrepreneurs “must be able to adapt, by improvising”. According to this academic, there is no doubt that there is a lack of “the promotion of practices that serve to express the risks”, that think of the person within a context. “Working with others means being able to think in common”, and this is something that usually does not happen. It was not by chance that Pedro Moura “believes we should not set out alone on an adventure such as this”. It is very important to have at least “one other person who makes a joint commitment to follow a path that will be very difficult”. The co-founder and COO of Mapidea believes “in this field there is a very Portuguese toxic culture that comes from a mixture of pride and honour combined with the inability to work with other people” and a “difficulty in trusting others”. He speaks from personal experience, because in a previous start-up he was involved in a situation of incompatibility, which translated “into a strong sense of isolation,” which in this case eventually led to a “start of exhaustion”. Since then he has learned “to trust people more and to face everything with much more grace and security”, although learning this lesson has certainly come at a “cost”. Although he accepts there is no “miracle pill”, he believes part of the solution may lie in finding “balance in the imbalance”, by not allowing the pressure to reach exaggerated levels and by creating a more open and “professional culture from the roots”. The founders’ responsibility Catarina Brandão, assistant professor at the University of Porto’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, says that, “isolation is important at first”. To be more in touch with the individual resources needed and to realize how to give substance to the idea. “Setting up a company requires a lot of resources in terms of time” and finding a “balance that is fragile”. You later look to the leader, from whom you expect to see “the company’s strategic vision, something that is becoming more demanding”. All eyes are on the leader, and he has to be able to deal with “people asking for help, competitors and an often-exaggerated flow of information”. While most entrepreneurs are millennials, they have to realise they are part of a generation that “have a great deal of trust in their skills, but which has very low tolerance for frustration”, which is something that will necessarily happen in the course of creating a start-up. There is still a “very romanticised, heroic vision” of what it is to start a business, and this ends up being transposed into the psyche of many people, placing many unprepared people in these positions. It is important that they “have a space in which they can access the resources they need”, which does not happen in many cases. Sharing spaces moderated by a psychologist, for example. Carlos Mendes says: “I do not advise companies that are a one-person show”. Currently teaching at Instituto Superior Técnico, he says it is clear that “the responsibilities should be shared between people with different skills but similar values”. A company starting from scratch has everything to do, and if it does not “immediately create the necessary team”, then what has not been planned will “fall on the founders’ head”. Putting problems into context is one of the tips he offers that will ensure these problems do not happen as often and allow “the start-up to work like any other”. Now he is responsible for two other companies (Digital Costing and Le Wagon), each with “problems similar to those of his previous one”, and he already sees them in a new light, simply because he has already been down that road.

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