What Being A Meta-Leader Really Means

The CEO of tomorrow is a “meta leader”–one who puts ideas out there for their communities, customers, and teams to shape. No one knows this more intimately than F*ck Cancer’s Yael Cohen.

What Being A Meta-Leader Really Means

Everyone keeps talking about the changing paradigm of a leader, but what does that really mean? When I started FCancer, along with collecting a plethora of awesome, scary, and interesting responsibilities, I became “the boss”–a leader of sorts. At the time, I didn’t think twice about what this meant. Now I think about it every day.


As someone who is now leading a movement, I wanted to figure out what equipped me to do this. Was I predisposed, lucky, or just fumbling my way though?

I figured out quickly that all those factors are true for me, but more importantly, I still don’t have my s**t figured out. New leaders are constantly growing with their teams, changed by their supporters and clients, and open about the fact that they don’t have all the answers. Now, I see leadership styles in two distinct categories:

  • The macro leader: The traditional top-down leader sets the tone, pace, and personality of a company or movement. They lead an organization’s beliefs, plans and actions.
  • The meta leader: The “new” leader has a vision for an idea, movement, or company, but it’s the community that brings it to life and keeps it thriving–their beliefs, talents, and abilities sculpt the clay of an idea into a fully functioning movement. Meta leaders activate, inspire, and give. We give our idea away and let the community that forms around it tell us what to do. We ask questions like what do they need, what do they want, and what do we anticipate they’ll need or want in the future?

Meta leaders do things differently. We collaborate. We’re willing to work together to build something better for society. Now don’t get me wrong–we can be capitalistic, greedy, selfish jerks, too–we just know how to share for our benefit and that of society, because ultimately we’re one and the same.

Ego will kill all talent. I don’t always know what to do, and I’m not always right. The new model of leadership isn’t one of top-down delegation–it’s one of group education, communal inspiration, and unlikely partnerships.

As a meta leader, I’ve learned a few things about leading my team and Gen Y members of a movement:

1. Your style isn’t the only style. I’m a fast-paced, unemotional worker. If I can say it in three words (“Not good enough”), why say more? “Great” doesn’t mean it’s sarcastically “great.” It means “You’re the best; I love what you’ve done with this task and so appreciate you being part of the team,” but in my own way. I now know I need to use different languages when speaking with different members of the team. There are some teamsters who speak “Yael” and some who need me to speak in full sentences to acknowledge them when they’ve rocked an assignment.


2. You don’t always have the best answer. This is something I tell the team weekly about myself, not in order to be self-deprecating or appear more human, but because it’s true. I hired every single employee we have because they bring something special to the table. Some teach us new skills, others lead the charge in an area that perplexes the rest of us, and almost all have passion and drive that rivals mine. I have learned that I need to reiterate this point almost weekly to encourage the team to take risks and share. We need to push the limits so that we can push the movement forward.

3. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Apparently I have no boundaries. Not in a Lindsay Lohan way–more so in that I work constantly and forget that emailing, calling and texting you at 5 a.m. isn’t cool with everyone. I’ve learned to put in place and respect personal and professional boundaries.

4. The mom/friend/teacher/disciplinary/disciple juggle is a struggle. As a boss, you have to be them all, sometimes within the same workweek. There are days when I feel like the mom (even though I am younger than everyone on the team). There are days when we need a collaborative vibe and sit with coffee around a table brainstorming or problem solving. There are days when I have to make sure everyone understands the goals, tasks at hand and overall movement. There are days when I have to discipline people who may be 10 years older than me. The most important days, though, are the ones where I am the disciple. These are the days when our insanely talented workforce teaches me things I never thought I would know.

Being any kind of leader is hard. It requires foolproof knowledge of your business, clients and goals. Being a new leader is harder; it requires a foolproof knowledge of both your own and your team members’ individual strengths, weaknesses and styles.

Find more leadership advice in the Fast Company newsletter.

–Yael Cohen, one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business 2012, founded FCancer in 2009 after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Determined to make a real impact within the cancer space, Yael created an organization that activates Generation Y to engage with their parents about early detection, and teaches supporters how to look for cancer instead of just find it.


The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

[Image: Flickr user Claudio.Ar (travelling)]