No. 6: How honest can we be as entrepreneurs?

We know we don't have all the answers. We know we don't know what's going to happen next. (No one does.) And yet, to persuade others to work with us + believe in us + invest in us, we feel like we need to have it all together. Why? The reasons abound, but I think chief among them is that the culture has told us we need to. "If you aren't 110% confident about your startup, who else is going to be?" was a common refrain when I was building my first business.

So we hone our 30 second and 60 second and 5 minute pitches and recite them with bright eyes and strong voices. And pitch after pitch, we start to believe the beautiful, logical story we're telling: our solution is better than the rest, our team is the best team for the job, we'll break even in a year. And worse, we say in our heads or even out loud, "gotta fake it till you make it!" When we say it, it feels fun, cavalier, carefree, clever. But we're literally encouraging ourselves to lie.

Can we be honest AND inspire others to come along on the ride with us? Can confidence mean expressing some weakness and some strength, rather than just strength?

Yes. And in fact, it turns out that people can see through the bravado of false strength. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson, in his blog earlier this month, describes two "syndromes" he often sees in young leaders: "deer in the headlights" and "I've got this." And "I've got this" is the more problematic of the two:

“The leader acts like they know what they are doing, but they don’t. And everyone around them knows it except them. I like to provide a leader with “I’ve got this” syndrome with a lot of tough love but that is usually not enough. The answer to “I’ve got this” is usually failure of some sort, often a very significant one. The key is to be there for the failing leader in that moment and help them get through the failure and come out of it with self awareness and a desire to address the issues that have gotten in the way.”

So how do we build and lead with honest confidence? Do we have to admit, "I don't got this?" No, because that's not true either. I propose that we say what we know, and what we don't know. What's going right, and what's not going right.

But, you say, if I'm honest about what's not going right, I'll get all kinds of feedback and suggestions about what to do about it, which I really don't want or need. Or, people will think I can't hack it, and they'll stop believing in me. The solution: give more information. Say what's going right, what's not going right, what your plan is to explore solutions to the problems, and what you'd like help with. You'll be more likely to get feedback and suggestions that are on topic and helpful, and you'll be inviting people along on the ride. Everyone likes to be invited.

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