Vanishing Mediary

I love the phrase vanishing mediary. This is what I aspire to be. It’s the opposite of a visible intermediary.

In our ego-fueled world, many people want to be front and center. Leaders are told to lead from the front, even if all they do is get up on a white horse and exit stage left as soon as the battle starts. We all know the leaders who are more about themselves than about the organizations and the people they lead. Many of us interact with this type of leader on a daily basis and, while it can be invigorating for a while when things are going well and there are bright lights shining all around you and celebrations around every corner, it’s often complete and total misery when things get tough.

The media wants hero stories. It also wants goat stories. The most glorious media story arc is rags to riches to rags with redemption back to riches. None of this is new – it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Just look at the covers of magazines going back 100 years. And I find it completely boring and tedious.

I can’t remember who first shared the word vanishing mediary with me (if it was you, please tell me so I can update this post) but I instantly loved it. It’s the notion of a leader who helps get things started and gets out of the way. She’s available if needed, and continues to lead by example, but doesn’t need to be front and center on a daily basis. When needed, especially when things are difficult, complicated, or a mess, she shows up, does her thing, and then gets out of the way again.

When I reflect on how I like to lead, it’s very consistent with the notion of a vanishing mediary. As an investor, as long as I support the CEO, I work for her. If I’m not needed, I hang out in the background and offer thoughts and data without emotion when I encounter things. If suddenly I’m needed for something, or get an assignment from the CEO or anyone else on the leadership team, I get after it. If there’s a crisis, I’m there every day for the CEO for whatever she needs.

My role with Techstars is similar. While I have some visibility as a co-founder, I offer it up to David Cohen, David Brown, Mark Solon, and the rest of the Techstars leadership team to use however they want. If they need me, I’m there. If they don’t, that’s cool. I’m a resource that can appear on a moments notice and provide any kind of leadership they need but I don’t have to be front and center.

Great startup communities work the same way. Whenever someone introduces me as the leader of …, the king of …, or the creator of the Boulder Startup Community, I cringe and go into a rant about how I’m not that. I’m just one of the many leaders in the Boulder Startup Community. I’ve helped create a number of things that contribute to it and I play an active role in it. But, like many others, including serial creators like Andrew Hyde (Startup Weekend, Ignite, TEDx Boulder, Startup Week, now at Techstars) I am most happy when I can hand something off that I created to someone else to take it to the next level (Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado is a great example of this – thanks to my co-founder Ryan Martens and my partner Seth Levine for providing leadership that has made it what it is today.)

In the 1990s, I ended up being a chairman or co-chairman of a bunch of companies, including two that went public. Today, even though I’m asked, I don’t want to hold the title of chairman for anything (there are a few exceptions – all non-profits). I don’t want to be at the top of the organizational hierarchy. I can play a strong leadership role through my actions, rather than by a title that anoints me.

Most of all, I want to provide leadership through doing. And I think I can best do that by being a vanishing mediary.  And, I recognize that mediary isn’t a well defined word, or may not even be an official word, so hopefully we’ll get an urban dictionary definition of vanishing mediary soon.

  • Not really related to this post, but i remember just how hard it was for you to be your normal mentoring self after your last ultramarathon. I recently came across this research that has an interesting hypothethis.

    • Yup – totally buy that. The 50 miler that I did caused real damage.

  • JamesHRH

    This is not really leadership.

    Leaders have day to day responsibility.

    • I disagree. Managers have day to day responsibility.

      • JamesHRH

        I am with Sam.

        • Sam

          I’m still thinking on this one myself, James.

          Things I know… Leadership is something you are conscious about. Leadership is something you practice and improve throughout your life. Leadership style is very personal. There are a range of successful styles, and the key is finding the one that resonates with you authentically.

          If I had one word to describe my own leadership style it would be “consigliere” or “adviser.” Things I believe: Great ideas come from anywhere. Listen to everyone. Be curious. Have no ego. With your team you define purpose, set direction, then get out of the way. Remove barriers for the team and connect them to resources. Trust them to take you beyond your expectations. That’s my leadership style, or at least the one that fits me and that I aspire to.

          That said, I’m not a startup CEO. I’m an adviser to top executives. I have a great gig going, but I’m considering setting that career aside for a while and founding a company. One of the critical things I’m questioning about myself is whether my leadership style will drive the results required to get a startup off the ground. And I haven’t answered that question yet.

    • thorsky

      You’re wrong about this.

      I’ve known great leaders with lots of day-to-day responsibility for doing the work. That’s my style for sure. I love leaders who get in and get muddy.

      But I’ve also known, and could name, great leaders who didn’t do the day-to-day work. Eisenhower and Marshall were both like that. I’ve personally worked for great leaders who operate exactly like this.

      They have a weird ability to know who can do the work well and who can’t, and they always seem to hire the person who can. And so they invariably and quickly surround themselves with great people. Then they mostly listen to what their people want to do and what they need to make those things happen; they TRUST that input but shape it to make sure it leads toward the company’s goals; and then they create the conditions so their people can make it happen.

      As I said it’s not my style, I’m more of a get in and get muddy, player-coach type. And the two vanishing mediaries I worked for, I started out thinking both guys were going to be like the boss in Dilbert. Eventually I grew up a little bit, quit projecting my own self-image onto them, and realized that a different kind of talent was at work here, a talent that I didn’t have and didn’t understand but was nevertheless quite real.

  • I’m reading Titan (Rockefeller’s biography) – to me, he seems the epitome of a vanishing mediary. Avoided the spotlight, assembled a team of brilliant people, made himself ferociously available when needed and disappeared when superfluous.

    One of his favorite maxims was that ‘success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed.’ Regarding his partners, employees, and portfolio companies, ‘he tested them exhaustively, yet once he trusted them he bestowed enormous power upon them and didn’t intrude unless something radically misfired.’

    It’s a good read if you haven’t picked it up already.

  • Sam

    Brad, this model of leadership sounds like a great fit for a VC/investor role, and I can relate. But I’m curious how this squares with your previous roles as founder/CEO. As founder/CEO you are the face of the company internally and externally, and people look to you to set the tone through the extreme ups and downs that can happen in the early years. Seems like “no vanishing allowed” would be an appropriate rule of thumb.

    • I wasn’t defining leadership from a CEO or a VC role. I was defining it generally.

      There are some great CEOs who are vanishing mediaries. I’d put Warren Buffet at the top of that list.

      • JamesHRH

        I think Warren Buffet is a collector of great leaders.

        He creates an environment and is also a powerful tool that his band of leaders can put to work.

        Its a bit semantic and not that important on the whole.

  • There seem to be two types of leaders. There are those who are so bright that they can lead without being in the weeds and there are those that are so bright that they can’t lead without being in the weeds.

    • These would be ends of the spectrum! I think there are plenty that are not at either end who are also great.

  • A few days ago I was chatting with a designer friend about how he’s re-doing his entire site from scratch. I asked what core elements he was including in the new build. He responded:

    “It’s all about the work, not about me.”

    It’s a beautiful thing when leaders fade into the background and let results speak for themselves.

  • kjbillings

    I really love this perspective. My startup partner and I have had a real rags to riches to rags story and we’re on our redemption bit now. I’m doing all the creative & technical stuff at the moment, while my partner is CEO and trying to get our seed round closed. He really knows how to be a great leader. He can be the kind of leaders you describe here when he needs to be. A vanishing intermediary when it comes to day to day technical stuff, and he can be the inspiration man when we need it. I think it’s like you said. It’s the selflessness and sense of service that makes the man a good leader… Great article man. 😀 Have a great day!

  • Frank Wood

    Thanks for the encouragement … In my training company, my goal is to spend 4 hours of direct time, make such an impact in those 4 hours that the person is able to internalize what was taught akin to the ability to ride a bicycle … to think that learning and internalizing a process can occur in just 4 hours of direct interaction … too cool!

    • There’s a similar metaphor that Amy and I use all the time, which is “teach me to fish.” The great leaders don’t fish, they teach others how to fish.

  • Ryan Martens

    Love the term, the values and the shout out. As you know, I lead this way at Rally. The trick is managing the loose, tight continuum slide. Moving from enabling to directing when needed is a real balance and timing thing. Teaching from the back of the room, but providing direction and structure when need. Servant leadership is leading by serving and serving by leading.

    A never ending pursuit to double down on everyday.

    • Craig T. Wood

      How do you build up your team to begin to own a thing? I try to lead this way, but find I constantly get pulled back into the weeds. It feels like more than providing direction.
      I find people get nervous that the only reason a thing has been successful is because my name/face was at the forefront.
      How would you combat this?

      • Ryan Martens

        Can you help someone else create a success and celebrate that? You have to model the behavior you want. Have you read the hard thing about hard things? Are you in Peacetime or Wartime? If in Wartime, it might not be the time?

        • Craig T. Wood

          Haven’t read it yet, but would guess we’re closer to Wartime. I hadn’t considered that before. The people are certainly ready, but perhaps the environment isn’t.
          You’ve given me a lot to chew on.
          Thanks so much,

  • shelbygoerlitz

    “When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.” Tao Te Ching, ch17

    • JamesHRH

      Yes, but is that leadership.

      Its pretty zen to say that people don’t know you are leading them.

      That being said, one of my favourite descriptions of political leadership is: ” you don’t tell the herd where to go, you figure out where it wants to go and yell – let’s go here!”

      • shelbygoerlitz

        Fair enough. And that little chapter (17) in the Tao describes an interesting leadership hierarchy (Hate < Fear < Love < Example) and my personal theory of leadership is that in practical terms you really need to be able to use all four, sorta like an expanded peacetime/wartime thing.

        The Example level is hard but it's how you do the big things, like build a culture or sustain long term relationships with partners and customers. Try and do those sustainably with bellowing or cajoling.. good luck.

        I liked this post a lot because it talks about influence by example while being an example of the same. And it's an echo of my favorite chapter in the Tao. Sweet!

  • Matt

    I’ll say it because I know Brad can’t for political reasons.
    Jack Dorsey’s desire to be named permanent CEO of Twitter is not because he is the best person for the job, but it’s because of his colossal ego, wanting to be front and center.

    • I actually can’t because I don’t know Jack and don’t have an opinion.

      • Matt


      • But so many of us are here because you do know a lot and we value your opinions!

  • mark gelband

    Great leaders…

    Take more than their fair share of the blame when things go wrong and give more credit to others when things go well.

  • Great post

  • Thanks so much for writing this. I sold the company I founded and helmed last year, and have stayed aboard for a successful transition. Being the “former CEO” in merged organization is one of the most ego-challenging things I can imagine going through! Empowering my team to assume leadership roles in my stead while offering feedback to my new bosses when asked, and not getting bent out of shape when I’m not asked.

    Done successfully, you become completely and utterly useless! (Quietly negotiating my early departure – as a corollary, never agree to a 2 year transition!)

  • dbriere

    +1 Brad, awesome term, I’m hooked on it too.

  • TedHoward

    In a similar vein, I always strive to make myself obsolete. If an employee needs any single employee, they have a problem. And once I’m obsolete I get to choose a new challenge.

  • Rosey

    Brad, perhaps you’re just pointing out your preferred leadership mode, one which affirms your leadership philosophy or model is working as you desire (which happens to by mine as well, after 30 years of team crisis interventions).

    I like the neologism. Perhaps it will stick.

    I’ve come to understand three leadership modes, each appropriate for its situation; lead ‘on point’ by performing the task and have your understudy observe and learn; ‘coach on the shoulder’ of your understudy as they perform and you compare notes, or thirdly, ‘delegate and observe’ then manage by exception.

    Vanishing Mediary seems first cousin to ‘coaching’, thinking out loud. Or just the style of applying all three — step in, unstick what needs unsticking, applying as much force as needed (on point, coach, delegate), then stepping out away.

    Some things can’t be delegated. Sometimes there’s no time to coach. Sometimes we’re the only one’s left standing to get it done. Your ‘Startup Life’ writing is a tour de’ force on this.

    I continue to watch others (you and your blog, hat tip), maintain a couple of life coaches looking over my shoulder (and Seth Godin’s blog’s a daily dose of ‘coach lite’), and most of my time is working on what’s delegated to me.

    Now vanishing.