Chances are, you’ve heard the story of how Mark Zuckerberg grew Facebook from a dorm room joke project into one of the most influential companies on earth. Virtually every ultra-successful company seems to have a similar backstory: An innovative (and usually white and male) entrepreneur takes a chance on a big idea, doggedly scales the business to massive success – bonus points if he does so from his garage – and becomes a world-changing billionaire. 

Given the prominence of tech startups in today’s corporate landscape, the popularity of this storyline makes sense. The genius-founder fairytale – also known as the “superhero” theory of leadership – is all but tailor-made to woo venture capitalists into whipping open their wallets. The trouble? It doesn’t last. 

“Even the best ideas rarely stand alone as sufficient,” says Jess H. Chua, an emeritus professor of entrepreneurial finance at the University of Calgary. “Strong leaders require more than just dreaming; they also need practicality and other traits.” 

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Practicality may seem like an obvious requirement for successful leadership. After all, without the know-how to plan and facilitate processes that bring ideas into fruition, a leader’s vision is only good on paper. But the genius-founder myth downplays a cornerstone of pragmatic leadership: the self-awareness to recognize that even the most gifted entrepreneur needs a team of collaborators with complementary skill sets to sustain the organization’s continued growth and innovation

“There’s this tendency to treat founders as these larger-than-life people and inspirational figures, so nobody really wants to see the more human side of them that also makes mistakes,” says Alex Alexakis, the founder and CEO of the web development and digital marketing company PixelChefs

Those human mistakes, if left unchecked long enough, can become major liabilities. Elon Musk’s high-profile blunders as the owner and CEO of Twitter, and the fall from grace of former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, are just two cases in point.

But there are some upsides to the founder myth, Alexakis admits. “It helps you hold onto somebody as a source of inspiration who helps motivate and drive you to achieve your own goals,” he says. 

What’s more, holding founders as inspirational figures can help establish trust from employees – at least, at first. From there, those “other traits” of effective founders come into play. Namely, learning how to build and empower teams that can collectively move the company forward. No single leader can achieve what a team can, together. 

“A leader that cultivates a team full of creativity and trust will build the company that maintains that culture,” says Alex Mastin, the chief executive and founder of Home Grounds. “Leaders are crucial to the success of a business, without a doubt, but the team that backs up the company is just as critical to the success.”

Often, the individual gets all the credit, but the team really did the work…Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, but there was a massive team of people at NASA that put that thing into the air….teams are really the people who do all the work. We really believe that.

Scott Farquhar, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Atlassian

But the mechanics of building and running a strong team are pretty different from the unbridled ego associated with the genius-founder fairytale. A team-first culture demands that leaders think about goals, processes, and problem-solving in terms of “us” and “we,” not “me” and “I.” A major part of that equation is an environment where employees feel trusted, respected, and safe to bring their whole selves to work. Research shows that employees who feel respected and valued by their supervisors are likely to stay with a company for a longer period of time and are more productive than those who aren’t.

Then there are the practical considerations – yes, that “P” word again – that effective leaders need to keep in mind. And they’re a lot more nuanced than the management cliché to “hire the best people and get out of their way.”

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By definition, leaders lead. To be effective, they need to model their organization’s vision and values to inspire their teams toward achieving common goals. Those goals should be clear, concrete, and shared. Finally, accountability is a must: taking ownership for mistakes, and giving credit where it’s due.  

The most effective leaders are those that don’t simply see their teams as pawns for executing their own visions, but as visionaries in their own right. Learning how to harness that talent and potential is a valuable skill, and one that all of the most accomplished leaders have had to learn – even if that’s not the success story that some founders and CEOs necessarily want to tell. 

“Believing in the genius-founder myth sets a ceiling on what we believe we are capable of achieving,”  says Chua, the finance professor. “This misconception prevents progress.” Conversely, by nurturing the unbridled potential for innovation that teams can accomplish, everyone stands to gain that much more – together.

The myth of the genius founder