Frederik Van Lierde

What Happens When Startup Leaders Take Ownership the Right Way?

Unpack the successes of responsible leadership with CEOs Satya Nadella, Anne Wojcicki, and Brian Chesky, alongside the ownership missteps from Elizabeth Holmes and others that led to startup failures. What Happens When Startup Leaders Take Ownership the Right Way?

Table of Contents

Ownership: The Keystone of Visionary Leadership

A clear differentiator of success is leadership ownership. But what exactly is ownership when it comes to leading a company? True ownership is the profound sense of responsibility that a leader has not only for the outcomes of their decisions but also for the welfare of their team and the direction of their organization. It’s about taking initiative, being accountable, and shouldering the consequences of one's actions.

Ownership, however, is not about micromanagement or authoritarian control. Leaders who confuse ownership with overbearing control often stifle creativity, curtail collaboration, and create an environment of fear and compliance rather than one of trust and engagement.

Embracing True Ownership: Successful Examples

Satya Nadella – Microsoft

Taking over from Steve Ballmer in 2014, Nadella displayed ownership by shifting Microsoft’s culture from one of competition to one of collaboration and growth mindset. He revitalized the company by focusing on cloud computing and integrating cross-platform technologies.

Satya Nadella stands out as a model of true ownership. When he stepped into the role of CEO at Microsoft in 2014, succeeding Steve Ballmer, Nadella didn't just take the reins; he steered the technological behemoth towards a renaissance.

By decisively pivoting the company culture from the internally competitive ethos that prevailed to one emphasizing collaboration and a growth mindset, Nadella transformed Microsoft. This not only rejuvenated Microsoft's innovation trajectory but also repositioned it as a leader in the competitive tech landscape, marking a stellar example of successful ownership in action.

Anne Wojcicki – 23andMe

Wojcicki demonstrated ownership by navigating her company through the complex regulatory landscapes of genetic testing. Her persistence and responsible approach to consumer privacy and ethics have established 23andMe as a leader in personal genomics.

Anne Wojcicki's tenure at 23andMe is a school example on how taking ownership can forge a path through even the most challenging landscapes. Her leadership shone as she guided the company with unyielding determination through the intricate maze of regulatory compliance, a critical aspect for any entity dealing with genetic data.

By prioritizing consumer privacy and adhering to a strict ethical code, Wojcicki not only navigated 23andMe to a place of prominence within the personal genomics industry but also won the trust of consumers worldwide. Wojcicki'sapproach, characterized by transparency and responsibility, has set a new standard for how companies in this sensitive field can succeed while respecting the privacy and ethical concerns of their users.

Brian Chesky – Airbnb

When faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, Chesky took ownership by making the painful decision to lay off a quarter of Airbnb's workforce. He did this with transparency and empathy, providing generous severance packages, and reorienting the business towards long-term sustainability.

Under Brian Chesky's stewardship, Airbnb's response to the COVID-19 pandemic became a defining moment in responsible leadership. Chesky's decision, though heartrending, was necessary for the company's survival and was executed with a level of empathy seldom seen in corporate layoffs.

He not only ensured that the departing staff received sufficient severance but also committed to aiding them in their transition, displaying a genuine concern for their well-being.

This difficult but decisive action, taken with full ownership of the consequences, not only demonstrated Chesky's integrity as a leader but also safeguarded Airbnb's future, allowing it to adapt and eventually thrive in a post-pandemic economy. Brian Chesky's actions serve as a profound illustration of how true ownership encompasses tough choices made with humanity at the forefront.

Averting Ownership: The Path to Failure

Elizabeth Holmes – Theranos

Holmes exemplifies the pitfalls of false ownership. Despite her public persona of confidence and control, behind the scenes, she was misleading stakeholders about the capabilities of her company's technology, which led to the company's downfall.

Publicly, she cultivated an image of a visionary entrepreneur with a revolutionary healthcare product that promised to change medical diagnostics.

However, beneath this veneer of success, Holmes was engaged in deceptive practices, grossly overstating the technology's readiness and reliability. Her inability to own up to the technological shortcomings, coupled with a culture of secrecy and intimidation, ultimately precipitated the collapse of Theranos. T The failure to embrace transparency and ethical responsibility in leadership, will lead to dire consequences for both the leader and the company.

Adam Neumann – WeWork

Neumann’s leadership showcased the dangers of misusing ownership. His erratic decision-making, self-dealing, and misrepresentation of the company’s financial health led to a failed IPO and a massive devaluation of WeWork.

His management style, characterized by impulsive decisions and a lack of transparency, set a precarious course for the company. By prioritizing personal gain and fostering a culture of excess, Neumann compromised the trust of investors and employees alike.

This culminated in a botched IPO attempt that not only undermined the company's market value but also tarnished its reputation. Neumann's failure to uphold the tenets of fiduciary responsibility and to act in the best interest of his company and its stakeholders. Critical authentic ownership is to the sustainability and integrity of a business.

ravis Kalanick – Uber

Kalanick’s failure in ownership was reflected in his management style, which contributed to a toxic workplace culture. His reluctance to take accountability for the misconduct under his leadership eventually led to his resignation.

While he was instrumental in Uber's rapid rise, his approach to leadership bred a culture that ultimately became detrimental to the company's image. The environment of Uber under Kalanick's watch was marked by aggressive expansion tactics and a disregard for regulatory concerns, which, along with reports of a hostile work environment, led to public outcry.

His resistance to acknowledge and address these systemic issues signaled a lack of true ownership, a deficit that would culminate in his resignation under intense pressure from stakeholders. Ownership extends beyond business victories to include the creation of a respectful, lawful, and ethical workplace.


For startup founders, CEOs, and entrepreneurs, these examples serve as powerful lessons. Ownership in leadership is not just about embracing success but also about navigating failure with grace and responsibility. By taking ownership, leaders can foster trust, drive innovation, and steer their companies through both calm and turbulent waters.

Leave a comment

Leave a comment, an idea, a related blog post on X (Twitter)

X (Twitter)