Prominent leaders such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are often portrayed in the media as exceptional and as possessing personality traits such as charisma, innovativeness or empathy that enable them to be successful. However, there is a significant difference between those at the top of billion-dollar companies and the individuals at the very beginning of a company’s existence. At inception, a start-up founder does not necessarily have the skills that would make him a great leader as a start-up might be unknown territory. In fact, nine out of ten start-ups fail (Griffith, 2014), many of these due to lack of effective leadership (CBInsights, 2016). Even though this statistic highlights the importance of studying founder-leader transitions in the start-up context, there are only few studies (Hoang & Gimeno, 2010) and further lack a unified body of knowledge (Bennis, 1959).
The innovation-driven market of the United Kingdom, in which the total entrepreneurial activity rate was 7.1% in 2015 (GEM report, 2015) is a rather big start-up industry in comparison to other European countries. Even more so, London has been ranked the number one city in Europe for start-ups, mainly owing to its financial sector (for venture capital as well as financial services) and strong creative cluster (European Digital City Index, 2015). In the future London’s number of technology companies is expected to rise to 45,000 and create more than twelve billion pounds of economic activity (London & Partners 2014).
New ventures contribute significantly to every economy. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the internal processes of start-ups in order to support their future growth. Especially developing an understanding of inter- and intra-personal processes is essential as founders find themselves in situations where they require new skills, behaviours and attitudes to achieve their business goals. Thus, the aim of this study is to explore if and how founder-leaders of start-ups adapt, develop and change during the process of setting up and leading their own company. After analysis and interpretation of the gathered data, it ultimately concludes that founders transform naturally into leaders by learning to assess and respond to unknown situations and changing environments.
To prove this, this study will have to address the following four questions: 1) How and to what extent do founder-leaders adapt their identities and skills during the start-up process? 2) What kind of personal and professional development takes place in the individual from founding a company to leading one? 3) If any, what are the specific traits common amongst leaders? 4) In which way does personal and professional development vary with age, time with the company and across different industries?
In order to understand the development within start-ups, it is crucial to appreciate what a “start-up” is. Many attempts have been made to define such, though the concept remains ambiguous today. The general understanding is that a start-up is a newly established venture that shows characteristics of fast growth, innovation and a culture that enables both (Robehmed, 2013). The GEM report (2016) identifies a start-up as a business up to forty-two months since foundation. However, this research paper agrees with Robehmed (2013) and defines a start-up as a venture that aims at turning new ideas into a scalable business despite not knowing the risks associated with the leader’s decisions.
Existing theories on leadership development in terms of personality, identity and social learning will serve as a basis to this study. Drawing on this framework, the present study increases the understanding of change, development and creation of leadership skills and mentality. It is organised into four main areas. First, previous research and extensive literature on development and adaptation are discussed, providing the theoretical groundwork on which this study is based. Second, the qualitative method is discussed in detail, including research design, sampling and background information of participants, data collection and data analysis. Third, the key findings are presented. The final section includes the discussion of the findings, the study’s limitations and implications for future research.
2 Literature Review
Even though leadership is one of the most studied issues in psychology (Hogan et al., 1994) and research on entrepreneurship has seen a significant increase over the past years (Bruyat & Julien, 2001), leadership development in the start-up context lacks thorough analyses and formulation of theories. Therefore, to understand how founders develop into leaders during the start-up process, it is essential to delve into various leadership theories and ultimately link them to the developmental and transformational start-up context. The formulated theoretical implications are then compared to the findings of the paper’s qualitative research.
2.1 Leadership as a result of personality
Initially, theories about entrepreneurship as well as leadership have taken a rather static perspective regarding whether and how individuals can transform into leaders. Trait theories, linked to personality research, were the first attempts to study leadership and are still widely discussed today (Lord & Hall, 2005). These approaches view traits as stable constructs of an individual and define personality as “the set of psychological traits and mechanisms within the individual that are organized and relatively enduring and that influence his or her interactions with, and adaptations to, the intrapsychic, physical, and social environments” (Larsen & Buss, 2005, p. 4). Even though personality has been studied intensively, the most prevailing and recognised tool to structure and study it in entrepreneurship and leadership research (e.g. Hogan & Kaiser, 2005; Judge et al., 2002; Rauch & Frese, 2007) is the Big 5 model (Costa & McCrae, 1992; Digman, 1990). It describes personality on five observable dimensions (emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness) and studies personality effects across varying contexts (Bono & Judge, 2004; Oswald & Hough, 2011). Entrepreneurs for instance, described as individuals who apply “energy and passion towards the creation and implementation of new ideas and creative solutions” (Kuratko & Hodgetts, 2004, p. 30), scored significantly higher on conscientiousness and openness to experience and significantly lower on agreeableness in comparison to managers (Zhao & Seibert, 2006). Other scholars have identified additional personal competencies of the entrepreneur, including pro-activeness, innovativeness and risk taking (Chen, 2007; Gupta et al., 2004; Kuratko, 2007) as well as perseverance (Markman & Baron, 2003), motivation and hard work (Baum & Locke, 2004; Stewart & Roth, 2007) and the ability to build trusting relationships (Eisenhardt & Schoonhoven, 1990). Studies have even concluded that personality plays an important role in the intention of becoming an entrepreneur as well as for entrepreneurial success (Stewart & Roth, 2007; Zhao & Seibert, 2006; Zhao et al., 2010). In regard to leadership, Stiehl et al. (2015) observed that extraverted, emotionally stable, and open individuals aspire to be leaders because they enjoy leading others and associate less fear of failure with the role. Furthermore, Judge et al. (2002) found that all Big 5 dimensions were related to leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness.
Researchers continue to explore the relationships between these personality traits and outcomes such as leadership effectiveness, however, many of the results show weak or inconclusive outcomes (Antonakis et al., 2004; Yukl, 2002). Some narrative reviews conclude that there is no relationship between personality traits and, for example, business creation and business success (Brockhaus & Horwitz, 1986; Gartner, 1989). The Big 5 structure has also been criticised and questioned regarding its consistency and applicability to non-western cultures (Silverthorne, 2010) and the quantity of dimensions (Block, 1995; Paunonen & Jackson, 2000; Ashton, Lee, & Son, 2000; Tellegen & Waller, 1987; Simms, 2007). Even if the model structures personality well, it has been widely agreed that it is rather limited to the individual and that other factors also shape personality. Those other factors include varying situations, which allow for expression (Mischel, 1968) or motives, which, e.g., can change with training and coaching (Stiehl et al., 2015).
However, one situation that has been widely recognised as shaping a personality is risk. Entrepreneurs, along with leaders, have to make decisions or take action based on uncertainty and risk to avoid failure (Jackson, 1994). Personality researchers have coined this term “risk propensity” (Jackson, 1994; Stewart & Roth, 2001) and have found in meta-analyses that risk propensity is positively related to entrepreneurial status. However, again, there is contradictory evidence coming from other meta-analytic studies showing that entrepreneurs are more risk avoidant (Miner & Raju, 2004). These findings on personality research prove that certain traits do influence individuals in varying situations, but might be overestimated in explaining performance or effectiveness.
Overall, latest research shows that leadership typically involves a complex mix of behavioural, cognitive and social skills that develop at different rates and require different learning experiences (Day & Halpin, 2004; Mumford et al., 2000; Zaccaro & Klimoski, 2001). In the next sections such theories will be discussed to complete this mix.
2.2 Identity and implicit leadership theories as behaviour influences
In recent years, leadership and entrepreneurial research has included identity (e.g. Brown, 2015; Hogg, 2001; Lord & Hall, 2005). As Day and Harrison (2007) argue, this perspective can potentially create a more thorough understanding “because identity transcends one-dimensional approaches such as behavioural or trait theories” (p. 365). However, identity is not only important for leadership but also “central for issues of meaning and motivation, commitment, loyalty, logics of action and decision-making, group and intergroup relations.“ (Svenigsson & Alvesson, 2003, p. 1164). Identity, defined as “the culmination of an individual’s values, experiences, and self-perceptions” (Baltes & Carstensen, 1991 as cited in Day & Harrison, 2007, p. 365), not only shapes behaviour but also affects knowledge acquisition and knowledge access (Lord & Hall, 2005). Some researchers argue that identity assumes a stable self-definition, some say it is a fluid and fragmented self, while others emphasise coherence and continuity (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003). In addition, Brown and Toyoki (2013) suggest that an individual’s self-concept is comprised of multiple, often competing identities, which potentially lead to identity conflict (Svenigsson & Alvesson, 2003). Thus, it needs to be investigated whether entrepreneurs carry a founder as well as a leader identity that potentially conflict or if they can co-exist harmoniously.
There has been little research on founder identity, but it may be more related to role identity theory (Cardon et al., 2009). A role identity entails “internalised expectations about characteristics individuals hold as central, distinctive, and enduring about them and that are at least partially reflected in the roles they enact” (Burke & Reitzes, 1991). Research shows that these expectations strongly affect organisational decisions, as well as all other entrepreneurial activities (Barney et al., 1998; Whetten & Mackey, 2002). This is because they are based on a founder’s self-concept (Hoang & Gimeno, 2010; Shepherd & Haynie, 2009), which is developed as a function of challenging environments and experiences with the self (Day & Harrison, 2007). Fauchart and Gruber (2011) point to three pure founder identities (darwinian, communitarian and missionary) that predict which decisions and behaviours will be carried out. On the contrary, Sveningsson and Alvesson (2003) argue that individuals create several, transitional identities (identity positions) rather than one stable and continuous one. As for leaders, identity is important “because it grounds them in understanding whom they are, their major goals and objectives, and their personal strengths and limitations” (Day & Harrison, 2007, p. 365). Lord and Hall (2005) support this view, and further argue that the development of leadership skills is dependent on the individual’s self-perception as a potential leader, because this leads him to engage in leadership behaviour.
In addition to founders’ self-perception as leaders, founders develop implicit leadership theory – a specific picture in their mind of what a leader should be – by observing and experiencing other leaders. Research has shown that people have generalised ideas about leadership (Eden & Leviathan, 1975; Rush et al., 1977; Weiss & Adler, 1981) that do not only impact how they evaluate the leadership potential of others, but also affect how they experiment with their own leadership behaviour once they find themselves in a suitable situation (Lord, Foti, & De Vader, 1984).
So far it has been determined that identity and implicit leadership theory should be understood as a prerequisite to transforming a founder’s behaviour into a leader’s behaviour. Overall there have been various theories about how identity can transform and change over time; however, this paper will focus on the theory of identity work as it is based on the notion that individuals dynamically shape their personal identities in organisations and are shaped by discursive forces (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003). Some academics propose that identity work results in positive identity transitions, allowing individuals to accommodate new identity demands, thereby reducing identity conflict (Ibarra, 1999). Labelling oneself as a leader prompts the individual into acting like one and further developing leadership skills (Day, Harrison & Halpin, 2009). Lord and Hall (2005) at the same time explain that these transitions in identities occur parallel with the development of leadership knowledge structures and social processes. So, it is the environment and the specific context that are likely to influence how the leader develops his skills. Lord and Hall additionally assert that the organisation and use of knowledge is influenced by the leader’s identity and his current psychological state. This directly contradicts the rather isolated personality theories. Applied to start-ups this means that the founder develops into a leader through the company’s growth, otherwise his (old) founder identity would mismatch the contextual and environmental requirements. In these early stages of the company’s growth, the founder’s behaviour is further adjusted to match his implicit theories of leadership.
This theory has been widely criticised on the point that leadership identity construction only happens in a social environment, since leaders do not only need to conform to their own, implicit leader constructions but also to be perceived as the “prototype” of the group they want to lead (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). By changing the group or context, leader identity can “shift over time and across situations” (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). According to DeRue and Ashford (2010) leadership identity entails three elements: individual internalisation, relational recognition and collective endorsement. Collective endorsement especially applies to the start-up context: The more an individual is collectively endorsed as “leader”, the more his identity will be reinforced, not only internally by team members but also externally by other founders, investors or the general public.
However, this way of thinking challenges the theories discussed above by highlighting the social context rather than the individual as trigger for development. Traditionally, leadership theories focused on these individual, trait-based theories but now include more dynamic, relational and situational ones (Drath, 1998; Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). One of these latter theories focuses on followership, as touched upon shortly before, suggesting that an individual can only emerge as a leader through followership (Day & Harrison, 2007). This perspective is especially valuable in the start-up context as by hiring a team, founders seem to develop into leaders naturally, from the situation where hired followers find themselves, subtly shaping their choices and behaviours based on the founder’s vision. By founding a company based on one’s own vision and values, the founder not only acts naturally as the most prototypical group member, but at the same time subconsciously communicates a leader identity to his followers (DeRue & Ashford, 2010; Ibarra & Barbulescu, 2010; Sveningsson & Larsson, 2006). During this process, the founder gradually develops and changes over time into the communicated leader identity (Hirst et al., 2004).
2.3 Experiences and context as triggers for development
Another approach looks particularly at the experiences and context that guide individuals into engaging in leadership behaviour, without a focus on personality or specific skills. One example is education; various researchers have found that advanced education and managerial experiences are strongly related with entrepreneurial entry. Shane (2000) explains that learned critical thinking, established communication skills and access to an extended social network enhance entrepreneurial abilities. From this point of view, it seems that entrepreneurship can be learned, a view which is supported by Drucker (1985). Cogliser and Brigham (2004) found a thematic overlap of leadership and entrepreneurship in regard to vision, influence, leading people and planning. Thus, since entrepreneurship seems to overlap with leadership in various aspects, it is assumed that not only can entrepreneurship be learned, but also leadership. In fact, some argue that entrepreneurship is merely leadership in a special context (Vecchio, 2003). Recently, both fields have witnessed a rise in the learning perspective, which views entrepreneurs and leaders as continuously learning and developing based on situational influences (Cope, 2005; Kempster, 2006; Rae, 2000). Rooke and Torbert (2005) suggest that what truly determines a leader is his “action logic”. They present seven different action logics, which can be defined as a leader’s interpretation of his surroundings and reaction to power or safety challenges, each with situational strengths and characteristics. Their research concludes that leaders transform from one action logic to another due to changes in their environment, interaction with people or simply receiving feedback, which triggers an increase in self-awareness and the readiness to develop oneself. Rooke and Torbert (2005) imply that leadership behaviour, based on one’s action logic, can be learned. This claim is supported by Kouzes and Posner (1987) who argue that leadership skills can be built not only through relational learning, but also through tasks themselves (challenging tasks, extension of responsibility, etc.). Shamir and Eilam (2005) further conclude that leadership develops naturally either out of struggle, finding a cause or learning from experience.
By combining the theories and perspectives discussed above, it can only be assumed that development is based on a mix of personality and traits, leader identity, context and learning. It is therefore crucial to evaluate the outcome of the qualitative research and how well this study captures the subjective opinions of individuals who have experienced this development. In the next section, the methods used in the qualitative research will be explained.
5.1 Interpretation of findings
5.1.1 Inborn characteristics, traits and qualities
Even though the findings of this research suggest different definitions of leadership, and even though each situation requires specific responses, the precondition for becoming a founder-leader is a natural tendency of daring to step forward into a risky and unknown situation. This finding overlaps with the characteristic of “proactiveness” suggested by Lord and Hall (2005). Another personality trait, “risk propensity” also describes this quality; however, participants of this research did not actively seek risk but instead accepted it into the process of realising their vision. In addition, the ability to maintain a positive attitude, adaptability to change and perseverance were important traits mentioned in connection with entrepreneurship – however, it is unclear if these are inborn qualities or rather learned in another context (Charania 2015; Duckworth et al., 2007; Kelman, 1958; Sherif & Hovland, 1961). Further, ruthlessness, awareness and mindfulness, temperament in stress situations and communication and listening skills as personality traits all seemed to be essential to both entrepreneurs and leaders. However, these personality traits did not have anything to do with the intention of becoming a founder-leader, which corresponds with Nicholson’s (1998) observation that some leaders are “dragged reluctantly into their positions”. This means that the above mentioned personality traits helped founder-leaders endure in start-up situations, but did not make them founder-leaders.
Various findings emerged that were difficult to combine as they provided divergent conclusions in regard to the discussed literature.
Even though many interviewees displayed multiple identities (Brown & Toyoki, 2013; Svenigsson & Alvesson, 2003) the majority of participants identified more strongly as founders than leaders. Founder identity was seen as a “matter of fact”, which derives from the formulated vision and values of the company and is based on the ideology of the founder. As the company develops, the vision and founder role remain synonymous with the business and are further nurtured with its successful growth. Consequently, the founder identity is positively reinforced and shaped through internal and external representations of success. However, the founders’ strong bond with their “baby” could potentially inhibit leader development and the adoption of leadership skills (Phelps et al., 2007), which is why needing to let go, as stated by most participants, is an essential step in a founder’s professional development. What remains unclear, however, is whether the “mother” or “father” identity is part of the founder identity or whether it should be treated as a distinct identity.
Participants did not aspire to be leaders when they founded their start-ups. Instead, leadership developed through the growth of the company and hiring team members (followers) who accept the founder as a leader, hereby again nurturing and reinforcing leader identity in the specific role. This finding corresponds with DeRue and Ashford’s (2010) findings that identity needs relational recognition and collective endorsement. Even though this type of identity work might be subconscious for the founder, it still successfully contributes to the establishment and development of a leader identity. Further, several theorists agree that entrepreneurs are merely leaders by virtue of their position (Colbert, 2003; Jensen & Luthans, 2006; Vecchio, 2003). Thus, role identity theory (Cardon et al., 2009) and identity work (Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2003) are both applicable. Conger (1992) suggests that the motivation to be a leader is crucial, which also supports the idea of identity work. However, as we have seen, this motivation developed during the process of setting up the start-up and was not evident at the outset.
Fiedler (1965) suggests that the effectiveness of leadership is dependent on its match with the situation. Especially in times of rapid growth, the transition or establishment of leader identity might lack “drive” and situational contingency. Greiner (1998) presents the phenomenon of a leadership-crisis after the early stages of a start-up, which corresponds with the rapid change of roles and requirements resulting in feelings of being overwhelmed. As a result, tasks and responsibilities demand an expeditious formalisation and professionalization of the individuals. As founders can no longer rely solely on their own old (and possibly out-of-date) skills, mistakes are made (Hogan et al., 1994), which could lead to the failure of the start-up. This interpretation also supports the split between co-founders as recounted by many interviewees.
Even though the above mentioned identity theories are valuable, it cannot be concluded whether identity transformation takes place or whether founder and leader identity co-exist harmoniously and skills are transformed and expanded within these separate identities. Either way, as stated by DeRue and Ashford (2010) and Lord and Hall (2005), the establishment or transformation of identities is a continuous process that evolves from differing environments and situations.
5.1.3 Differentiation of founders, leaders and managers
All interviewees had advanced education or managerial experience, which is a strong indicator of becoming an entrepreneur and possessing entrepreneurial abilities (Shane, 2000). However, it remains unclear if and in what ways the corporate environment and education impact upon intelligence and innovative thinking. Even though Salgado et al. (2003) found that intelligence is a valuable predictor for job performance and success, some start-up founders of this research had experienced failure in their previous start-ups.
Although literature suggests that vision is crucial to both foundership and leadership (Cogliser & Brigham, 2004), participants viewed vision as something only the founder defines and shares. The start-up experience per se was recounted as increasing self-awareness and self-development, which speaks in favour of the literature (Rooke & Torbert, 2005). However, findings do show overlaps between leadership and management as leadership is perceived as a more managerial act. Gardner (1986) affirms that leaders must also manage and most managers must occasionally lead. According to Hogan and Kaiser (2005), managerial competencies include leadership skills such as building and motivating a high-performance team. They further state that leadership skills are the easiest to train, which is supported by Drucker (1985) and corresponds with most participants’ opinions. Other interviewees suggested that management can be learned, but not leadership. This contradiction might arise out of the variety of definitions of leadership given by different individuals, which complicates capturing the true meaning of the word leadership and thus inhibits effective comparison. Interestingly, participants were able to clearly identify responsibilities, necessary competencies and characteristics of a leader’s role.
As reflected by the experience of this study’s participants, new businesses are more and more founded by teams instead of individuals (Beckman, 2006; Cooper et al., 1989; Lechler, 2001). However, co-foundership research still remains disintegrated and lacks a clear framework (Klotz et al., 2014). Shared leadership, defined as mutual influence of multiple team members (Carson et al., 2007; Day et al., 2004), enhances team effectiveness (Avolio et al., 1996; Pearce & Sims, 2002), team sales (Mehra et al., 2006) and revenue growth (Ensley et al., 2006). Further, personality diversity in shared leadership intensifies leadership effectiveness and team performance (Zhou, 2016) and individuals learn to lead through their process of co-participation (Taylor & Thorpe, 2004). These research findings correspond with this paper’s findings, as every interviewed founding member is part of a founding team and experienced this as rewarding and insightful.
5.1.5 Learning and development
Starting one’s own business requires the individual to respond to unique task demands and work roles such as innovator, risk taker and bearer, executive manager, relationship builder and goal achiever (Chen, Greene, & Crick, 1998). These roles all provide valuable sources of experience and learning and result in participants’ role identifications.
Most participants placed immense significance on learning from previous organisational experiences, which directly contradicts Kempster and Cope’s findings (2010). Action and social learning researchers (Raelin, 1997; Revans, 1980) emphasise that individuals not only learn from project work and day-to-day experiences but also from observations (Ibarra 1999) in the organisational workplace. These valuable takeaways are transferable to leadership behaviour, which is learned through trial and error, experimentation and making mistakes (Cope, 2005; Gibb, 1997). The importance of failure is further emphasized by Frese (2009), who states that errors occur more frequently in complex environments. Also, McCall et al. (1988) conclude that significant learning occurs in times of high pressure and challenging jobs, which certainly reflects the start-up environment narrated by the interviewees. Compared to these successful start-up leaders who avoided repeating the same mistakes, Lombardo (1986) confirms that unsuccessful managers usually deny their mistakes.
Learning occurs as a natural process during the start-up phase. Numerous theorists support this finding, stating that leadership learning transpires through naturalistic processes and accidental events, rather than being deliberately and consciously planned (Bennis & Thomas, 2002; Burgoyne & Hodgson, 1983; Cox & Cooper, 1989; Hill, 2003; Luthans & Avolio, 2003; McCall, 1998).
As entrepreneurs are embedded in a complex network of relationships (Jones, 2005; Taylor & Thorpe, 2004), they further extract information and advice to create knowledge and solve problems (Hoang & Antonic, 2003; Kempster & Cope, 2010; Lee & Jones, 2008). These findings correspond with opinions from this research, focusing on role models and investors.
5.1.6 The narrative as influence
Research suggests that leadership development is heavily based on the narration of one’s own life-story since individuals have the opportunity to reflect and establish a leader identity, self-knowledge and clear beliefs (Shamir & Eilam, 2005). As a result, the way this research was conducted could have had an impact on the development of a leader’s identity and the mind-set of the interviewees. The reflection of one’s own self-concept is specifically useful as the start-up environment requires a source of “inner strength” (Shamir & Eilam, 2005, p. 399) and strong conviction in order to build up motivation and energy to face obstacles and setbacks. By reflecting and “extracting lessons” from previous experiences, individual development proceeds.
5.2 Limitations and implications for future research
5.2.1 The role of the researcher
It should be noted that the researcher’s reality, values and personality shaped the way that data was analysed and discussed (Esterberg, 2002). Related to this argument is the critique that, even though the data was collected through narrative interviewing, the researcher had to ask several follow-up questions to extract meaningful data. The phrasing of these questions might have influenced participant’ reflections and narratives. Even though the main narratives came to a natural halt, the interviewees might have held back from deeper reflections if the interviewer intervened too soon. Facial expressions, gestures and the like could also have influenced the outcome of the data collection.
5.2.2 Limitations of the current study
This research carries several limitations, which are necessary to reflect upon. First, data was gathered solely from start-ups that have grown into successful companies. However, there might not be a causal relationship between the successful development from a founder to a leader and the development from a start-up to a profitable company. In fact, most participants learned from failure. In any case, as only a few companies responded in comparison to those who were contacted, the data also consists of start-ups that were established more than forty-two months ago (as defined in the GEM report in the introduction). However, this was beneficial as the experiences from a nascent entrepreneur to an established business owner could be understood and compared.
Second, it was difficult to not intervene during the main narrative when interviewees touched upon sensitive topics or some expressions were unclear. Riessman (2008) confirms that giving up control while interviewees recapitulate emotional or personally sensitive topics is particularly difficult. She suggests a narrative thematic analysis; however, the researcher wanted to make statements that represented the data of all sixteen cases (Riessman, 2008), which is why general thematic analysis was chosen.
Third, as this study aimed at capturing the personal opinions of participants and gaining insights into their experiences, the reader has to keep in mind that its findings are limited to these participants’ subjective reports on their personal development and learning. Also, the results are limited to this particular group of participants, time frame and intense environment. The fact that all interviewees had experience and a university degree may have led to experiences and opinions divergent from those of other start-up founders who were not interviewed. Further, as the sample size was relatively small and based in one specific location, the generalisability of the findings is limited. Also, development takes place in various environments and is therefore not limited to the start-up phase alone
5.2.3 Implications for future research
Despite the limitations described above, the findings of this study and their interpretation have important implications for future research. Limited literature exists on the factors that influence the training, development and performance of leaders (Brungardt, 1997; Conger, 1992), teams and their interdependencies (Yukl, 2012) in the start-up context. Consequently, researchers need to understand when, where and how entrepreneurial leadership is developed in order for individuals to become effective leaders and establish successful companies in the future. For start-up founders, or individuals who think of stepping out of their comfort zone in a corporation, this study also increases the understanding of change, development and creation of leadership skills and mentality.
The researcher of this study hopes to have addressed various theories within the area of leadership development and transformation with new findings, and thereby contributed to the academic debate on the subject.
For future research, it is recommended to not only rely on the founders’ own reflections and opinions, but to also gain reflections on their development from their peers, families and colleagues. In addition, a longitudinal study would be valuable as specific, impactful events might have been difficult to recollect and examining experiences regularly over time can overcome such difficulties.
The aim of this study was to investigate if and how founders and leaders of start-ups adapt, develop and change during the process of setting up and leading their own company and what role interviewees’ identities play.
It has been shown that leadership skills develop through a “cognitive bootstrapping process” (Lord & Hall, 2005, p. 592) as founders learn from previous experiences, failures and their social context and as a result, they adapt new thinking, behaviour, knowledge and their identities. However, we must also employ a personality-behaviour framework (e.g., Stewart et al., 2005) as certain traits guide behaviours.
The experience of sixteen participants in start-ups and their journey of developing into leaders was explored. The results show the necessity of learning and adaptation in stressful and risky situations, which not only derives from experience and failure but also from role models and investors. Working in start-ups was recounted by participants as being extremely valuable in terms of their personal development, as well as being incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.
This study contributes to existing narrative research on the understanding of entrepreneurship and leadership development. The qualitative data obtained provides answers to all four research questions raised and gives extensive insights into the start-up journey in London. Developing into a leader means adopting new roles and adapting to new requirements but requires further investigation within the context of entrepreneurial research in the future.
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