Editor’s note: David Gardner, a serial entrepreneur, investor and the driving force behind Cary-based Cofounders Capital, is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.

David Gardner

CARY – There is a big difference between being a manager and being a leader.    A manager is tasked with making sure that assigned processes are accomplished as effectively and efficiently as possible.   A leader is challenged with determining what tasks a company should be doing in the first place.     Managers focus on short term goals and deadlines.    Leaders focus on where the company will be and what it should be doing in the long run.

The master communicator, Stephen Covey, illustrated this concept brilliantly using a logging analogy.  He said that a manager is the person overseeing the process and teams cutting down the trees.   The manager makes sure that the wood cutting teams are using the right tools, meeting quota and adhering to safety protocols.   The leader is the person who climbs the highest tree and yells, “Wrong forest”!

I often tell my founders that if they expertly manage the wrong things, then their team members will simply do them faster all-day long.   Managers insure that a team has the training and resources necessary to get a job done and they monitor that process to ensure that the job really is getting done.   By contrast, the first responsibility in wearing the leader’s hat is to provide clear strategic direction.   You have to be the one to ensure that your managers have all been tasked with managing things that are going to ultimately move your company in the direction it needs to go.  When you slide this hat on, it’s time to think about the big picture.   Pull your head out of operations and stop thinking about tactics, efficiencies, and marginal process improvement.   Instead, start thinking about your overall strategic direction.  While wearing this hat everything is on the table for consideration.   Leaders don’t think about how to sell more widgets.  They ask themselves, “What could we be selling if we weren’t selling widgets?”

The art of strategic leadership is to question everything.   Big companies have more people, more technology, and more resources than a startup.  Our only advantage is that we can innovate, try things, and change direction hundreds of times faster than large organizations.   Leaders push their teams to contemplate, iterate, learn, modify, and re-apply as quickly as possible because in a startup, this is our biggest advantage and most powerful weapon.

I love reading books about great leaders, the problems they faced, and how they navigated crisis.   Andy Grove, the iconic CEO of Intel®, knew what it meant to wear the leader’s hat.  Intel was and always had been in the business of making memory chips.  This is what built the company and made them successful, but when foreign competition started flooding their market with cheap memory chips, Grove could see the writing on the wall.   He was famous for saying, “only the paranoid survive”.    He called his management team together and asked, “If the board decided to fire us all and bring in a new management team tomorrow, what would those guys do?”  This was Grove’s way of getting his team to rethink everything from a fresh new perspective.  It was a radical move, but under Grove’s leadership, Intel stopped making memory chips all together and started making processors for personal computers. The rest is history.  That is leadership.

Leaders know there are no guarantees so they take nothing for granted.   The very thing that made you successful in past years might be the very thing that causes your down fall next year.  Leadership, however, is not always about change.   Sometimes leadership is the confidence to simply stay the course during a rough patch.  It’s true that much of your success in a startup will come from quickly trying different things and seeing what works, but this has to start settling down as your venture matures.  You can’t keep chasing every shinny object.   With limited resources, leaders know that everything you say “yes” to means that you’ll have to say “no” to something else.  Therefore, they are always thinking in terms of opportunity costs i.e. the cost of not doing the next best option.

No matter whether you are staying the course or turning your company on a dime, the leader is always grasping for the big picture, thinking through every possible scenario, gathering all of the feedback and data points available and then making the hard calls.