Over the years working with start-up entrepreneurs, I have seen and heard many ideas that are worth taking forward. However, many of the best ideas get left behind, due to anxiety over disruptive projects and a lack of effective skillsets.

When start-ups soar, it’s easy to forget the disruptive ideas that began their journey. And when start-ups fail, it is often down to a leader who doesn’t have the right skillset to constantly iterate.

Startup leadership tips

Why start-up ideas can fail

Many of the best ideas come from the abstract. That is, services and products that don’t fully exist yet. Instead, they are in the ‘thinking’ phase, and need the right kind of leadership to move them through to fruition.

With no laid-out roadmap or tangible product, teams can fall by the wayside and ideas that should have been great fail to gain traction. Dealing with innovation and disruptive business ideas requires a unique, and often rare, skillset. Managers who have it are distinct and vital to the success of a start-up.

Functioning with negative capability

Recently, Nathan Furr, assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD introduced a concept he calls ‘negative capability’. Co-author of ‘Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, Furr says that what is often missing from a team is negative capability, which he defines as the ability to effectively function in the abstract.

To grasp what he means, let’s examine ‘positive capabilities’. Bristol Business School’s Robert French outlined these and says that they are usually linked with successful general management. He says they are:

positive capabilities generally linked with successful general management as:

  • Being able to understand complex new ideas.
  • Being able to manage the implementation and execution of these new ideas.
  • Being able to manage different roles within the start-up in to execute new ideas.

These characteristics are usually technical, and involve maintaining discipline, leading teams and managing the organisational structure. They’re valuable skills for company managers, and particularly so for any company working within an innovative, disruptive environment. However, alone they’re not enough to guarantee success.

New ideas distract team members from their ordinary work. As they are now in uncharted territory, this often invokes anxiety. Teams in this position “tend to move toward avoidance tactics – defaulting known structures, which then lead to the collapse of the new project.”

A disruptive start-up must have a leader who is able to handle uncertainty and the unknown. The necessary entrepreneurial skillset for entrepreneurs to thrive also includes the ability the adapt and change tack.

Founders discussing company mission

Here are three other vital skillsets:

1. Divergent thinking

Effective start-up leaders must be able to take in lots of different ideas and connect information that are usually poles apart. Furr refers to this as “divergent thinking” and maintains that the leader must focus on the end result while also processing a lot of contrasting information.

2. Convergent action

These disruptive leaders must be able to take the information and “execute on new ideas in order to create something tangible.”

3. Influential communication

The leader must also be able to communicate in an influential way. Without this the disruptive idea can fail. They must: “inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity.”