Why founders need a certain degree of delusion

Founders' delusion
iStock/Todor Tsvetkov
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Some might say you need to be a bit deluded to start a business. Despite the fact the image of an entrepreneur is an aspirational one, there are plenty of problems people face when starting their own business. At any stage of a business’ development, there will be barriers to growth, it’s just hard to develop new clients, hire enough of the right people, and keep solvent.

It takes more than a good idea and hard work to stand a chance at success. A business needs a confident leader with a strong mindset, which often includes just the right level of delusion. 

A degree of delusion

At the growth stage of a business, there is a need to create a buzz. At the same time, the reality is that this is a time of hard work, periods of intense crisis, feelings of self-doubt and failure, with no certainty of a positive outcome.

The reality is that this is a time of hard work, periods of intense crisis, feelings of self-doubt and failure, with no certainty of a positive outcome.

There will be highs and lows and the lows definitely won’t be fun, it is down to you to make it look as if it is. It is down to you to make people believe your hype.

When running a new business you need to paint a positive vision of the future to your staff and clients (and probably yourself) that could well have a tenuous relationship with the current reality.

Finding exactly the right level of delusion is, however, tricky. You simultaneously believe in success but also to have an idea of what could happen if things don’t work out. By being aware of potential pitfalls you can hopefully avoid them, but also try to prepare for what you would do to try to salvage the project, or even your whole business, if the worst case scenario became a reality.

Having too much delusion and blind faith in a positive outcome is likely to increase the chances of failure. Additionally, the gap between your vision and reality must not become too big if you don’t want your staff to become disillusioned. There is a line between hustle and fraud that is easy to cross – the road to hell is paved with good intentions after all.

You can’t keep predicting success and not attain it as eventually investors, staff and customers will lose trust in you. 

Understand that your staff don’t necessarily need to care

A founder or CEO will always have to care about all that goes on within the business. It’s purpose, direction and the next steps are all a part of the bigger picture that is your job role. While you have to focus on all areas of the business, it isn’t down to your staff to care about too much beyond their individual job role. It can be hard for founders to grasp that employees are not as invested in their business as they would like them to be.

You simultaneously believe in success but also to have an idea of what could happen if things don’t work out. ​

The key to engaging your staff and keeping them focussed on the overall goal of your business is to keep your message as simple as possible. Of course, employees do talk to each other and Chinese whispers can result in seemingly easy-to-understand messages becoming distorted. Aim for a message so straight-forward that if you were to wake one of your staff members at 3am they would immediately be able to tell you what the business’ key objective is.

Spread this message amongst employees, stakeholders and customers as this will also stop you from losing focus of exactly what you want the business to achieve and from having extreme delusions that the business is something it’s not.

Effective execution at scale is the result of the numerous decisions taken every day by your staff, acting on the information available to them and acting in their own self-interest. So keep people properly informed and make sure incentives are aligned.

Hunt down problems

It is one thing to have a backup plan for when potential stumbling block is hit, but what is even better is to actively look for problems within the business. Part of the role as a founder or CEO is to relentlessly look for ways to improve the business. It is important to have people on your team who will call you out when you are believing your own hype. This is something that wouldn’t be possible if you become too delusional and aren’t open to listening to dissenting voices that would shatter the castle you are building in the sky.

It is important to have people on your team who will call you out when you are believing your own hype. ​

Another option is to seek help or advice from someone external to the business. A fresh pair of eyes can identify weak areas that you may have glossed over or ignored when concentrating on other areas of the business.

To build on from the technique of having staff learn a simple message to align themselves with your vision of the company, it is also helpful as a founder to explain your business to a third party. This means simple, easy-to-understand language and to be brutal about the identifying the objectives that matter. Again, by doing this you can tighten up and clarify company objectives and values.

When it comes to founding and leading a business there is no step-by-step guide. Having the brightest of ideas is not enough to succeed, nor is finding loans and business partners or convincing investors that you are a solid investment to make.

All founders need the right kind of psychological insight which does include confidence and a degree of delusion. This delusion can get you through the dark times and feed the positive mindset that is the key to getting through the inevitable stresses of living your life on the edge.

About Ben Fletcher

Ben Fletcher - Fast Growth Forums

Ben Fletcher is chairman of Growth Builder, a high-growth business accelerator with NatWest, BT, UCL, Loughborough University, UKTI, the UK Business Angels Association, PIE Mapping and Fast Growth Forum. He has a background in entrepreneurship and is the founder of Fast Growth Forum.

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