Leadership is always about inspiring, enabling and empowering others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. The best leaders create a culture of self-reinforcing behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and environment. At the same time leadership is situational and leaders need to pull different levers at different times:

  • With teams of less than 10 people, adopt a start-up mindset
  • Lead small teams of 10-20 people like an extended family
  • If you’re leading a growing team of 30 or more people, hierarchy is your friend.

Let’s dig into these three ideas, building on what Gillian Davis and I wrote over a decade ago in the last three chapters of our book, “First-time Leader.” Note these build off the BRAVE framework, from the outside-in:

  • Environment – Where to play (context)
  • Values – What matters and why (purpose)
  • Attitude – How to win (choices)
  • Relationships – How to connect (communication)
  • Behaviors – What impact (implementation)

With teams of less than 10 people, adopt a start-up mindset

If you are starting or joining a small team, lead with environment and values. The critical questions are where to play and what matters and why. Build everything else on these over time.

Play where you can solve someone’s problem. Then assemble your early team of complementary, interdependent partners. Not everyone on the team needs to have strategic, operational, and organizational strengths. But someone on the team should, and all must buy in to the same values.

Or you can leverage external partners using a make, buy or rent framework:

  • Make or do the core yourself – the critical capabilities to solve the problem you choose to solve.
  • Buy systems and things that are required for you to be successful so you can adapt them over time.
  • Rent to leverage others’ expertise in areas that support, but are not the critical capabilities you need.

This is true whether your team is a stand-alone start up or a new group within a larger organization.

  • Play where you can solve someone’s problem and build the strengths required to solve that problem either in your early team or through external partners.
  • Lock in core values.
  • Gain early momentum and keep going until it’s time to stop.

Lead small teams of 10-20 like an extended family

Once the team grows beyond a nuclear family with everyone reporting to one leader, the nature of how the team works changes. At this point, attitude starts to become more important. Get your core focus set: design, production, delivery or service – and use that as your guide for how to grow the team and which capabilities to add first.

With teams of 10-30 people or so, you’ll know everyone and can treat them like extended family. Even so, this is the time to implement rudimentary people-management and operating practices.

  • Choose your core point of differentiation
  • Let that choice guide team expansion priorities.
  • Agree the main tenets of your culture and start implementing operational practices to embed those tenets.

If you’re leading a growing team of more than 30 people, hierarchy is your friend

While it’s not likely your first leadership team will have more than 30, it does happen. The more likely scenario is that you start with a smaller team and grow it. Once your team has more than 30 people, you need to get over your natural abhorrence of hierarchy and start substituting some organizational and operating processes for your ability to know everyone on the team.

With this size team, lead with relationships and behaviors (how to connect, what impact). Work on the organization. Put in place enabling practices to scale. And remember the #1 job of the leader is to own and reinforce vision and values. This gets ever more important (and complicated) as the organization grows.

One essential practice is that of delegating with a direction, resources, bounded authority and accountability framework:

  1. Direction/objectives/desired results/intent
  2. Resources (human, financial, technical or operational)
  3. Authority to make tactical decisions within strategic boundaries/guidelines
  4. Accountability and consequences (standards of performance, time expectations, positive and negative consequences of success and failure)


  • Work on the organization.
  • Put in place enabling practices to scale.
  • Reinforce vision and values – the #1 job of a leader.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #827) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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