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Founders and CEOs : How to avoid self-destruction under pressure.

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Entrepreneurship can be an incredibly rewarding but challenging journey, filled with unexpected obstacles and difficult decisions. In order to navigate these challenges and succeed in the long run, startup founders/CEOs need to possess a set of vital skills, including self-reflection and self-awareness. In this article we will explain why these are vital and how they can be developed and leveraged to achieve success and wellbeing.

Over the past 10 years, and particularly through the bull market that lasted well into 2021, investors have chased the most promising startups and their founders, often looking for personality traits that in a sharply changing investment environment, have become a liability as investors ask more tough questions about performance and capital requirements for the business.

Entrepreneurs who face mounting stresses over their funding, the health of their businesses and rarely mentioned personal issues tend to develop what psychologists and social scientists call “executive derailers”. They identified and catalogued three behavioral patterns that cause the mighty to fall. These behaviors are “moving against,” “moving away,” and “moving toward,” all of which are coping mechanisms that attempt to regain some sort of control.

Moving against (aggression) will result in hostility and a need to control other people. These individuals can become difficult, domineering, and unkind. This strategy is likely to shape a need for gaining power, exploiting others, social recognition, prestige, personal admiration, and personal achievement. But arrogant defensiveness isn’t the only “moving against” behavior. It can also manifest as redirection, diverting attention from the issue at hand, such as by spiraling rapidly into ideating, sometimes coming up with brand-new strategies on the spot and spinning schemes about new products, new markets, and growth possibilities that can save the company. As a result, the management team feels whipsawed and confused, and investors, unclear on the company’s strategic direction, begin to lose confidence in the leader.

Moving away (withdrawal) will mainly result in antisocial behavior. These individuals are often described as cold, indifferent, and aloof. This strategy shapes the need for self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and independence. It may also lead to perfectionism. They become over-reliant on themselves and expect too much from themselves. They set unrealistic and impossible standard for themselves.

In this category of behaviors, founder/CEOs move away from problems (sometimes literally) instead of making decisions. Suddenly, they are difficult to reach, quick to dodge tough conversations or fail to give investor updates. Instead of burying issues in hopes of them going away, the better action is discussing significant issues to improve clarity and demonstrate visible leadership. Leadership can be forged in crisis, and having the courage to address the issue is half the battle.

Moving toward (compliance) will cause individuals to seek affirmation and acceptance from others. They might become needy, clingy or anxious as they seek out approval. Being complacent and satisfied with lesser than what their true potential could help them attain is also a usual outcome, resulting in massive loss of self-confidence and in impostor syndrome. This behavior might bleed into micromanagement and obsession on unimportant details.

Once in this situation founder/CEOs tend to develop a bit of each and becoming increasingly aware of their stress-related behaviors and self-destructive patterns is increasingly important for them today, especially those who have never lived through an economic downcycle before. Self-awareness, paired with professional and personal support, can stave off self-destructive behaviors and promote more positive interactions and, importantly, results.

These combined pressures will increase leadership challenges for entrepreneurs and founder/CEOs, making it likely that their self-defeating behaviors will increase as market conditions erode, investors’ demands intensify and self-awareness isn’t developed.

Self-awareness can be loosely defined as recognition and awareness of your strengths, interests, passions and skills, and how they change over time. It’s also recognizing and accepting your weaknesses and shortcomings. It’s knowing who you actually are, what you’re good at and being at peace with it.

What exactly can self-awareness change?

1. Improved decision-making: Being self-aware enables individuals to better recognize their biases, emotions, and thought patterns, which can help them make more informed and objective decisions.

2. Better communication and collaboration: Strong relationships with team members, customers, and stakeholders are built through understanding and empathizing with others, working towards trust and rapport, and creating a positive and supportive work environment.

3. Greater self-confidence: Having a clear understanding of strengths, values, and purpose, will develop greater self-confidence. Founders/CEOs can take risks, pursue their goals, and inspire others to follow their lead. 4. Enhanced creativity and innovation: Self-awareness will help detach from every day polluting thoughts or emotions, thus helping entrepreneurs to tap into their creativity and come up with new and innovative ideas. They can think outside the box, challenge the status quo, and create products or services that meet the needs of their customers in unique and exciting ways.

5. Enhanced leadership: Founders/CEOs become more effective leaders by better understanding their own needs, expectations, leadership style and the impact it has on their team. They’ll be able to adapt their approach to better inspire their team members.

6. Increased resilience: Stress, pressure, fear and long working hours are just a few of the many challenges and setbacks of entrepreneurial everyday life. Training self-awareness will help develop the resilience and emotional intelligence needed to overcome these obstacles.

7. Improved mental and physical health: Understanding every aspect of themselves will enable founders/CEOs to manage their nervous systems and help prevent mental and physical exhaustion like burnout.

8. Healthy work-life balance: Work-life balance is critical in maintaining productivity. Working longer is not always efficient, but there is always the temptation to overwork. Training self-awareness will help to pro-actively create a healthy and sustainable balance.

Building self-awareness can be done in many ways, the fastest being working with a professional coach/mentor that can help founders/CEOs to see their patterns and initiate a global strategy. Other ways are :

1. Journaling: Writing down thoughts and feelings in a journal can help entrepreneurs gain insight into their emotions, beliefs and values. Journaling can also help entrepreneurs track their progress, identify patterns and set goals. 2. Personal development: Taking time every week to read books or watch videos about the basics of human development and the functioning of the psyche. This will enable the ability to observe, reflect and understand patterns, behaviors and stress triggers. 3. Seeking feedback: Asking for feedback from trusted colleagues or mentors can help entrepreneurs gain an outside perspective on their strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. Feedback can also help entrepreneurs identify areas for improvement and set goals for personal and professional development.

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