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Geert Haentjens - Training & Consulting

Leadership in HiTech StartUps: key to succes

 Mobilising through leadership all talents is crucial to making StartUp projects successful. We highlight practical insights on how to make this happen.

How to describe Leadership?

Here we introduce the Circumplex Leadership model, of which Leary's Rose is the most well-known, simple and visually appealing example.

Circumplex models have been studied extensively by measuring behaviour, attitudes, associated thoughts and feelings, or by using observation scales.

We will now describe how leaders can communicate and collaborate more effectively with their team by understanding their behaviour. In another article, we will use the same basic concept to clarify the different entrepreneurship styles in a StartUp.

In the simplest and most practical forms of these models, we use only two axes to describe leadership. These axes represent the degree of dominance and affiliation. Depending on the application - be it leadership, conflict management, entrepreneurship or, for example, decision-making styles - we name these axes according to the correlations of high to low dominance (vertical axis on the figure below) and high to low affiliation (horzontal axis).

Relational behaviour is highly predictable

In studies where human interactions are observed (think of recording videos of people talking to each other and then analysing the footage), it is found that more than 95% of the time the interactions between action (of the person saying or doing something) and reaction (of the person responding) are parallel to the vertical axis.

Here is a simple example (see the figure below): Imagine the CTO proposing a well-founded and inspiring solution to a recent problem. Team members are likely to respond in a participatory or accepting manner. If they then ask for help to elaborate on this solution, i.e. put themselves in a dependent relationship with their CTO, the manager is likely to respond in a coaching manner.

This dynamic of action and reaction, and vice versa, is a sign of good cooperation. At least, this is true when requests are made in a 'reasonable' manner and at the right time. However, if the request is 'unreasonable' (e.g. in terms of content), in an 'unreasonable way' (e.g. relationally), or at an 'unreasonable time', we no longer speak of 'green' behaviour but rather of 'orange' or 'red' behaviour.

In short, any behaviour, including different forms of leadership, can be exhibited by anyone in four ways:

  • Grey (too little presence)
  • Green (supports relationship and cooperation)
  • Orange (details from the past or current situation influence the interpretation of behaviour)
  • Red (behaviour is too frequent, too extreme, poorly timed, too rigid, etc.).

Red interactions have a negative impact on the relationship and cooperation. They are examples of awkward leadership.

You will also notice that the green area on the right side of the figure is larger than on the left. In our western culture, we generally accept greater differences in intensity and frequency of behaviour on the collaborative side than on the "Counterplay" side. "Counterplay" can be positive in itself, for example when we constructively disagree, as long as this behaviour stays within the 'green' intensity. However, the accepted variation in behaviour is more limited on the left side than on the right side of Leary's Rose.

The high degree of predictability of behaviour also means that managers are co-responsible for their employees' behaviour, and vice versa. So you reap what you sow.

How does leadership, complex as behaviour, look visually yet simple?


Research and practical experience show that effective leaders in interpersonal relations have a flexible interaction style. They can switch smoothly between different positions within Leary's Rose. These successful leaders

  • Are sensitive to the need for different styles (What does my team member need here-and-now as my style to be successful? No size fits all).
  • Are flexible in their approach, meaning they are willing and able to adapt their style to specific circumstances.
  • Are effective in their style, meaning they can behave in an authentic, pleasant and credible way within a wide range of Leary positions, while staying in the 'green zone'.

This results in better team performance as a result of adequate leadership.

We give below an example of both successful and unsuccessful behaviour of leaders of a StartUp.
Within a development project, where innovative solutions are sought, an inspiring, supportive and participative style is often effective. When solutions are assessed for their substantive quality, a more critical approach (Left-Below in Leary's Rose) is more appropriate. When implementing solutions, a combination of goal-setting, correcting, inspiring and coaching can speed up implementation.

Leaders who are less effective in interpersonal interactions often display a rigid style in which they stick too much to a limited number of behavioural patterns. For example, leaders who are overly dominant (top left in Leary's Rose) often evoke submissive behaviour from their team members (bottom left). This can lead to resistance or employee disengagement, e.g. when it comes to highly sought-after technical profiles that may be poached away. Others, whose package of options, for example, makes them unwilling to leave, may feel less engaged and limit their commitment.

In crisis situations, a dominant interaction style may be necessary, albeit temporarily, but overuse is not appropriate.

These interactions can take place in face-to-face conversations or virtually. In virtual or telephone conversations, less non-verbal social cues are generally available, which can lead to employees misinterpreting the leader's behaviour.

Cultural sensitivity needed

Although the basic axes of the Circumplex models can be used worldwide, there are still cultural differences in how behaviour is expressed and interpreted.

In some cultures, for example, more overt counter-play is accepted during discussions than in Western cultures. On the other hand, other cultures emphasise hierarchical relationships (the vertical axis) differently.

Understanding and recognising these intercultural differences, and developing the necessary sensitivity to them, can be very valuable. Circumplex models provide a useful framework here.

What's in it for you?

The reality for leaders of startups is challenging: constantly under pressure, surrounded by uncertainty and the need to manage many different tasks simultaneously. In these circumstances, there is a significant risk of overshooting, overcompensating (red behaviour in the figure above).

Through coaching and feedback, we can develop the leadership of (co-)founders, C-suite executives and VP leaders within startups so that they rarely, if ever, fall into overcompensation. We aim for them to adapt flexibly and authentically to what their team members need to be successful.

Want to improve your leadership skills as an individual or leadership team and lead your startup to success? Feel free to contact us for a no-obligation consultation. In it, we can explore together what is critical for your successful project.


Integrating leadership: The leadership circumplex. Marleen Redeker, Reinout E. de Vries, Danny Rouckhout, Patrick Vermeren, and Filip de Fruyt, 2014

Geert Haentjens

Training, Consulting & Coaching.
More effective, efficient and enjoyable work for individuals, teams and organisations

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