When Giving Up The Lead Is The Best Leadership Decision

Is it possible to be a leader and keep your creative roots? For some, it becomes a choice of priorities.

When Giving Up The Lead Is The Best Leadership Decision
[Photo: Flickr user TechCrunch]

Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 business lessons of 2015. See the full list here.


By the age of 30, Sophia Amoruso had gotten further in her career than many people who are much older–the community college dropout had turned her eBay clothing sales business into a bona fide successful fashion company, Nasty Gal, and published a bestselling career advice book, #Girlboss.

But when Amoruso stepped down from her CEO role at Nasty Gal last month to get back to her creative roots, some saw her decision as a concession of defeat. But it could be that deciding not to be a leader is Amoruso’s boldest leadership move yet.

For many entrepreneurs, beginning with a creative idea and then building the foundations of a profitable company can be too overwhelming to do alone. Even Mark Zuckerberg, after all, brought in Sheryl Sandberg, eventually. When trying to scale the business–like Amuroso did as Nasty Gal grew larger–someone with a more traditional business background like former company president Sheree Waterson, who has taken over as CEO, makes sense.

Sarah Endline, the founder and CEO of candy company sweetriot, knows what it’s like to balance creative ideas with organizational and management skills. Although she has an MBA from Harvard Business School, Endline relied on other entrepreneurs for advice as her business grew. Her strategy was to build a strong team and delegate responsibility to a trusted No. 2 who worked her way up through the company. “It’s a constant conversation,” Endline says about assigning roles and responsibilities. “People sometimes get hung up on titles, but it’s about highest and best use.”

And it’s not just about hiring good people. Endline’s “best use” requires admitting her own weaknesses or areas she’s not as excited about, then making sure other team members can fill in those gaps. “The thing you learn as your business grows is, “What’s your highest and best use?” It’s not like you’re going to change yourself as a person. If you love finance and math, versus someone who loved art class and graphic design, you can’t fundamentally shift someone’s strengths and weaknesses.” In other words: Not all skills can be taught, especially when the passion isn’t there.

It sounds like Amoruso might agree with that assertion. Her move away from the CEO role of her company seems to be an acknowledgement that she enjoys the creative side of the business–designing and branding–over day-to-day management responsibilities. #Girlboss helped Amoruso to model herself as a new kind of leader, a millennial woman who didn’t pretend to have all the answers and wasn’t going to dress, talk, or act a certain way in order to fit in with Corporate America.


A Different Type Of Leader

Lex Schroeder, an organizer at Take the Lead Women, an initiative that encourages women in leadership roles, notes that many women, especially younger ones, are more willing to imagine new, unconventional styles of leadership. This often means intentionally avoiding the “know-it-all” leadership style of the past, where CEOs had to weigh in on everything from new hires to a new font in order to assert their authority.

“One of the most exciting things about having more women in leadership roles is how this is making way for leadership styles we’re not used to seeing to show up,” says Schroeder. “Stepping back or changing roles isn’t always easy, but it creates new space for someone else to step up for the good of the organization. This, too, is leadership. It just takes more humility than we’re used to seeing in the business space and in our culture.”

For this new generation of female leaders, work is a major component of life–but not the only component. It’s also completely acceptable to say no, step back, or cede control on certain aspects of the business if it’s for the overall good of the company. And it’s that humility, that willingness to bring in new voices or consult other opinions, that will raise the generation of leaders who come after them.

Lilit Marcus is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her first book, Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace, based on the website of the same name, was published by Hyperion. Her work has also appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Observer. Follow her on Twitter: @lilitmarcus