By Marcus Coetzee, 7 December 2022.
There tend to be two types of entrepreneurs that I encounter in my consulting work. There are those that strive to be in the middle of the action and build their organisations around them. Then there are those who strive to build their organisations to be separate from themselves like a piece of software.
I first encountered this concept when I read E-Myth Revisited over two decades ago. The book advised entrepreneurs to work ‘on’ their businesses as opposed to ‘in’ them. Nowadays I think of these dichotomous archetypes as ‘heroes’ versus ‘programmers’. Framing them in a positive light makes this model more useful and easier to communicate.
This article explores these archetypes, considers when they are an asset or liability, and reflects on what we might learn from them.
Heroes want to be near the action
Heroes want to be the centrepiece of their organisations. They want to be in the middle of the action where they can easily monitor and direct what is happening. They inject huge amounts of energy into their organisations where it is most needed. Decisions gravitate in their direction. They prevent things from falling apart. They might surround themselves with a war-band of fellow warriors that follow their lead. Their names are synonymous with the organisations they run. Heroes have strong personalities and are clearly in charge.
There are certainly times when heroes are invaluable. For example, they tend to be good in a crisis when strong leadership is required to make some quick and decisive decisions. Their input also injects energy and skills into start-ups when resources and momentum are scarce. Heroes use their personal brands to attract opportunities to their organisations.
But there are potential downsides to heroes. Firstly, they are vulnerable to Founders Syndrome as they struggle to delegate genuine authority and relinquish their role as their organisations mature. Secondly, their organisations tend to be difficult to sell or hand over since they are dependent on their leadership and ongoing involvement. Third, some heroes succeed in cultivating a cult of personality where their followers are absolutely loyal to them and see no flaw in their actions.
The public and media narrative likes heroes – they want to celebrate their ascent and gloat over their downfall. We see this every day. They attribute more agency to them than is realistically possible, forgetting that they rely on their teams to get things done.
Programmers want to design
Programmers work hard to create organisations that have a life of their own and can function without them. They treat organisations like pieces of software. They focus heavily on installing systems, which I define as the combination of people, processes and technology that work together in a structured and repeating manner to achieve a specified outcome. Programmers try to codify doctrine, whether it be culture or decision criteria and embed it in their organisation and key people. They sometimes step back to observe their creation, before stepping inside once again to fine-tune systems or something else, and so the cycle repeats.
As with the hero, there are times when the programmer is invaluable to their organisation. This is especially the case if they intend to sell shareholding and/or resign and move on, or when they need to delegate authority so that they can focus their attention elsewhere. Both examples require them to mentor the people in their team. Programmers also make it easy to rapidly induct new staff members into the organisation as there are clearly specified systems for everything.
There are also some downsides to the programmer. Firstly, systems tend to work well in the contexts for which they are designed. If the context changes too much, then these systems can become limiting and unable to respond to the new conditions, unless the programmer is able and willing to step in again and make some changes. Secondly, organisations that are starting up, or where something must be rapidly overhauled, tend to do best with leaders who can get directly involved and make decisions. I have written before about the leadership styles of start-ups versus established organisations. The programmer might struggle to generate sufficient momentum since they are insufficiently active on the front lines.
Here are five thoughts on the two archetypes of hero versus programmer.
First, entrepreneurs tend to be more complex than two archetypes and are likely to have elements of both. For example, I often thrive in the middle of all the action and emotion, but when I’ve got some perspective, I try to distance myself and focus on developing doctrine and systems, and mentoring others.
Second, it is possible for entrepreneurs to transition from one archetype to the other. Michael Hyatt is a good example. I have followed him for over a decade. He has been a source of wisdom and inspiration. He left his job as the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers to start a leadership consultancy. Soon thereafter he recruited a PA as he got overwhelmed with all the administration. As the business grew, he branded it Michael Hyatt and Company and embedded his wisdom in the strategy, systems and culture. Once the basics were in place, he increasingly delegated and let other people take the lead and be in the foreground. This enabled him to resign from the CEO position and focus on his role as Chairman of the Board. Recently, he has rebranded the now larger and more profitable business as Full Focus so it can grow without him and not be limited by his own brand.
Third, either archetype can control their organisations in an unhealthy manner, by the hero with their personal power and personality or by the programmer with their autocratic and dogmatic systems.
Fourth, either archetype can be constrained by surrounding themselves with a majority of people of the opposite archetype. They are likely to be undermined and struggle to generate sufficient momentum to do what they want. This is because they will struggle to achieve consensus on how to build their organisation.
Finally, entrepreneurs who misidentify their archetypes are likely to struggle to make positive changes in their organisations. Heroes who masquerade as programmers are likely to talk about building systems while rushing into action and making numerous exceptions for themselves. Conversely, programmers that think of themselves as heroes are likely to be frustrated as they strive to be in the limelight but get overwhelmed and struggle to command.
Entrepreneurs should reflect and consider which archetype they most embody. Then they can take steps to revise their approach and adopt some of the perspectives and behaviours of the other archetype. They might also be able to work more closely with people who have a complementary approach. Then if none of this works, it is best for heroes and programmers to be upfront about their preferred style and try to build the type of organisation that is more suited to it.
The world needs both heroes and programmers to create well-rounded organisations. Which one are you?