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Acting Upbeat

Manage your own emotions. Your team looks up to you—you’re the founder!

4 min read
Acting Upbeat
A group of happy people of different genders and descents sitting in a brightly lit cafe.
Before Growth is a weekly newsletter about startups and their builders before product–market fit, by 3x founder and programmer Kamil Nicieja.

Leading a team is not just about having a good game plan and execution. You also have to understand how your team members are feeling. People often say that a CEO is like a therapist because they have to fix problems between team members. But it’s equally important to get a grip on your own emotions.

As the founder, you set the tone for how the team feels. Your team is always watching you, even if they don’t realize it, to get a sense of how the company is doing.

If your team thinks you’ve lost hope in the mission, they’ll probably start thinking about leaving. Your mood sets the tone for how they feel, too. It’s not about how much they like or respect you; it’s just human nature. If you’re down, the team’s morale can drop. If you’re anxious, it can make everyone else uneasy. And while anger can sometimes rally the team against a big challenge, losing your cool can also stir up unneeded stress.

Real-world examples

The biography of Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson shows how a leader’s emotions can really affect their team. Musk’s moods, whether he’s angry or excited, have a ripple effect on his employees. His anger can push some people to work harder, but it can also make others quit. Isaacson can’t say for sure if it’s intentional or just part of his personality, but Musk’s employees often talk about capable colleagues who ended up leaving the company. But one thing that never changes is his rock-solid belief in what his companies are doing. Even when it looked like SpaceX or Tesla might go under, Musk’s own faith and optimism kept his teams going.

Some top leaders choose to show confidence, even if they don’t have everything figured out. Take Pep Guardiola, the famous coach who led Manchester City to a historic Premier League win. Guardiola has said that sometimes he has to pretend to be sure of things when his players ask him questions.

Why does he do this? Guardiola believes that appearing in control helps boost his players’ confidence. In an interview, he openly said, “Often when I don't know something, I act in front of the players as if I do.” This isn’t just about being older or more experienced; after all, he’s a 52-year-old veteran leading a much younger team. It’s about building confidence through a well-crafted show of faith and optimism. If he started questioning his own plans openly, what would that do to a team that looks to him for direction? That’s a conversation for him to have with his fellow coaches, not his players—not just before the big game.

In young companies, culture isn’t usually set by formal rules; it’s made by the people who work there. While there are outliers like Pixar, where the culture grew naturally and even shaped Steve Jobs’ ideas—as mentioned in Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc—usually the culture trickles down from the top. Founders have a big role in this. They’re the ones making hiring, promotion, and firing decisions. So, basically, how they act and what they choose sets the mood for the company.

The power of optimism

A hopeful leader tends to attract people who think the same way, and this quality is a good sign of other important traits:

  • Optimistic people tend to have a strong sense of agency and are action-oriented. The underlying assumption is that action is worthwhile because success is possible.
  • In creative settings, optimists usually make for more cooperative and productive team members. They maintain a positive outlook even when facing obstacles, believing they’ll eventually find a way through.
  • Resilience is another hallmark of optimistic individuals. They bounce back more quickly from setbacks, not just recovering but often gaining valuable insights that prepare them for future challenges.
  • Optimists often possess a growth mindset, the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and effort. This mindset nurtures a love for learning and a resilience that are critical for achieving long-term success.
  • When it comes to leadership, optimists have a unique capacity to inspire and mobilize their teams. Their conviction that positive outcomes are achievable acts as a catalyst, enhancing group morale and overall productivity.

In the beginning phases of a project or startup, being optimistic is especially important. That’s why, when you're hiring, it's smart to look for signs of optimism along with evaluating skills and abilities. Some say that pessimists might tackle issues and their solutions more pragmatically, offering them an advantage over idealistic optimists who often fall short. This viewpoint holds some merit. However, I’d contend that in the startup landscape, where typically only you and a handful of supporters believe in your vision, optimists adapt to scrutinize their ideas more swiftly than pessimists can overhaul their entire mindset to have self-belief against all odds.

But as a founder or leader, you have a big responsibility. The last thing you want is to gather a team of upbeat go-getters and then slowly kill their enthusiasm with your own negativity or doubt.

Acting Upbeat emphasizes optimism as an almost universally positive trait. Are there any scenarios where excessive optimism could backfire? I explored this question from a reader in a subsequent article.

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Kamil Nicieja

I guess you can call me an optimist. I build products for fun—I’m a startup founder, author, and software engineer who’s worked with tech companies around the world.

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