What makes entrepreneurs so special?

So what makes entrepreneurs so special? They come from every country, every walk of life, age, sex, race, creed and religion. Are you one? How can you spot one?

I am proud to be an entrepreneur but I am not a "normal person", I am a little mad, some say "visionary", some say a "maverick", some say "pushy" and some say downright "obsessive".

I can withstand all sorts of pressures, take big gambles, always playing with my own money risk, push my health to it’s limits, fail a lot and I never give up – so it’s confirmed I am crazy…is this you too?

Before you jump into a life of being an entrepreneur you should consider some of these traits and see if you think this is you or if you should maybe do something else – being an entrepreneur is not for everyone and it’s a very tough life but ultimately rewarding for the right type of people.

In an excellent chapter from the The Financial Times Mastering Entrepreneurship book Manfred Kets de Vries details the unique – and sometimes aberrant – behaviour traits that make up an entrepreneur.

What are entrepreneurs like?  What distinguishes them from other business people?  What makes them so special?  Although as a group they are not easy to get a handle on, some characteristics seem to be common to all of them.

Entrepreneurs seem to be achievement oriented, like to take responsibility for decisions, and dislike repetitive, routine work.  Creative entrepreneurs possess high levels of energy and great degrees of perseverance and imagination, which combined with a willingness to take moderate, calculated risk enables them to transform what often began as a very simple ill-defined idea into something concrete.

Entrepreneurs can instill highly contagious enthusiasm in an organisation.  They convey a sense of purpose and determination.  By doing so, they convince others that they are where the action is.  Whatever it is – seductiveness, gamesmanship or charisma – entrepreneurs somehow know how to lead an organisation and give it momentum.  Most importantly, entrepreneurs are the driving force of any country’s economy; they represent the wealth of a nation and its potential to create employment.

An extremely successful entrepreneur is Richard Branson, the Chairman of the Virgin Group, an empire that encompasses travel, communications (books, radio and television stations, computer/video games), retail and hotels. 

Branson’s leadership style is a unique combination of energy, originality and shrewdness.  He is the major driving force in the company, a master of motivation, and knows how to get the best out of his people.  Furthermore, he is aware of some of his weaknesses and has hired others to compensate for these, having in the process created a highly effective executive constellation made up of people with diverse skills.

Branson, however, is an exception in the way he has taken on the entrepreneurial role.  Entrepreneurs are not a homogeneous group.  They come in all shapes and sizes, each with his or her own characteristics.  In come cases entrepreneurs possess personality quirks that, while they originally may have been a source of great strength, can – when excessive – cause serious problems for the entrepreneur and the enterprise.

The entrepreneur’s inner theatre

The need to control

A significant theme in the life and personality of many entrepreneurs is the need for control, a preoccupation that inevitably affects the way they deal with power relationships and their consequences for interpersonal action.

Some entrepreneurs are strikingly ambivalent when an issue of control surfaces – they are filled with fantasies of grandiosity, influence, power and authority yet they also feel helpless.  They like to be in control but fear being controlled by others.

Some entrepreneurs have serious difficulties addressing issues of dominance and submission and are suspicious toward people in positions of authority.  This attitude contrasts greatly with that of managers.  While managers seem able to identify in a positive and constructive way with authority figures – using them as role models – many entrepreneurs lack the executive’s fluidity in changing from a superior to a subordinate role.

Instead, entrepreneurs often experience authority relationships and the accompanying structures as stifling.  They find it difficult to work with other in structured situations unless, of course they created the structure and the work is done on their terms.

Listening to entrepreneurs’ case histories, one can find many situations where it was their inability to accept authority and organisational rules that drove them to become entrepreneurs in the first place.  Many are "misfits" who need to create their own environment.

People who are overly concerned about being in control have little tolerance for subordinates who think for themselves.  In an organisational contrext this desire for control can go to extremes – for example, an entrepreneur wanting to be informed about every minute operation of the company.  Such micro-management, appropriate as it may be in the start-up phase of a company, will increasingly become a burden as it stifles the information flow, hampers decision-making and inhibits the attraction and retention of capable executives.

The late Robert Maxwell was a good example of an entrepreneur obsessed with control.  In his companies there was only one way of doing things.  It was his way or the highway.  He had to control everything around him, whether prople or companies.  Everything however trivial, had to be approved by him.  There was no management structure; everything revolved around and depended on him.  Through this kind of fragmentation, which created a considerable amount of obscurity, he kept control over all decisions.

A sense of distrust

Closely related to the need for control is a proclivity toward suspicion of others.  Some entrepreneurs have a strong distrust of the world around them.  They live in fear of being victimised.  They want to be ready should disaster strike,

Paradoxically, quite a few feel best when their fortunes are at their lowest.  When at the top of the success wave, they imagine themselves incurring the envy of others.  No wonder that they respond that business is only "so, so" or "not too bad" when they are asked how things are going.  But if their fortunes turn and they are close to bankruptcy, it is as if they have paid the price, done their penance for being successful.  As this produces a sense of relief, their predicament can have a positive effect.  With the alleviation of anxiety, they have the energy to start anew, which they do with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.

As some entrepreneurs have a pervasive fear of being victimised, they are continually scanning the environment for confirmation of their suspicions.  This behaviour pattern does, of course, have its constructive side; it makes them alert to moves by competitors, suppliers, customers or government that affect the industry.  Anticipating the actions of others protects them from being taken unaware.  But such vigilance can also lead them to lose any sense of proportion.  Focussing on certain trouble spots and ignoring others, entrepreneurs may blow up trivial things and lose sight of the reality of the situation.

When a strong sense of distrust assisted by a need for control takes over, the consequences for the organisation are serious.  Sycophants set the tone, people strop acting independently and political gamesmanship is rampant.  Such entrepreneurs can interpret harmless acts as threats to their control and see them as warranting destructive counteractions.

The problem in contending with such a distorted form of reasoning and action is that behind the false perception that leads to fear and suspicion, one can always find some confirmation.  Unfortunately, the person who manages in this way forgets the price the company pays in deteriorating morale, low employee satisfaction and declining productivity.

The need for applause

The heroic myth begins with the hero’s humble birth, his rapid rise to prominence and power, his conquest of the forces of evil, his vulnerability to the sin of pride and finally his fall through betrayal or heroic sacrifice.

The basic symbolic themes here – of birth, conquest, pride, betrayal and death – are relevant to all of us.  Some entrepreneurs act out the same myth, as we have seen, with a Greek chorus in the background applauding their achievements but warning them about pride.

Perhaps the myth explains why so many entrepreneurs live under a great deal of tension.  They feel they are living on the edge, that their success will not last (their need for control and their sense of distrust are symptomatic of this anxiety), but they also have an overriding concern to be heard and recognised – to be seen as heroes.  Some entrepreneurs experience a strong urge to show others that they amount to something, that they cannot be ignored.

A manifestation of this strong narcissistic need is the interest some entrepreneurs show in building "monuments" as symbols of their achievements.  Sometimes the monument is an imposing office building or production facility; sometimes it is a product that takes on a symbolic significance.  Maxwell, for example, was indefatigable in seeking (and getting) attention.  He constantly needed an entourage and an audience.  He was a great self-promoter and was irrepressibly boastful.  His objective was to be in the news constantly.  The Daily Mirror was turned into a kind of family album, with Maxwell writing his own headlines.  He even acquired a soccer club, another highly effective way to stay in the public eye.

Defensive operations

Some entrepreneurs resort to some peculiarly primitive defensive processes, which can lead to a great discrepancy between the narrative truth and the historical truth; facts are arranged to suit the individual’ needs.  Splitting – a behaviour pattern whereby everything is seen in extremes, black or white, friend or foe – is a defence mechanism used by some entrepreneurs.  Maxwell was no stranger to this way of dealing with others.  If you disagreed with him, you were his enemy.  He did not take easily to different points of view.  He did not forget or forgive his enemies’ "crimes".  On the contrary, he had a memory like an elephant and would go to great lengths to get even.

Some entrepreneurs also have a tendency to blame others for what goes wrong.  They do not see their own responsibility in the matter.  Scapegoating is an excellent way of blaming others while feeling virtuous oneself. In assigning blame elsewhere, entrepreneurs may rationalise away whatever responsibility they have for questionable events.  Their capacity to delude themselves can be tremendous.

Many entrepreneurs are also incapable of sitting still.  There is cyclical quality to their behaviour they are prone to great mood swings.  They have difficulty in controlling their impulses and managing anxiety and depression.. They fear that being passive would make them over dependent and in the end fall victim to control by others.  Moreover, passivity evokes depressive reactions.

Managing for creativity

We have seen that entrepreneurs come in many different shapes and sizes; some manage for the good, others can become quite destructive.  Some of the darker notes of entrepreneurship are quite real, however, and pose serious quandaries for those working for them.  Managing an entrepreneur is not always one of the easiest tasks.  But although the extremes stand out, most situations do not go that far.

Entrepreneurs do not necessarily have more personal problems than other people, nor do they inevitably have personality disorders.  What one can extract from the previous comments however, is that entrepreneurs have their own unique ways of dealing with the stresses and strains of daily life.

In saying this, I want to emphasise that the boundaries between the very creative and aberrant behaviour can be blurred.  The mix of creative and irrational is what makes entrepreneurs tick and accounts for many of their positive contributions. 

Entrepreneurs create new industries and stimulate the economy.  Their visionary abilities and leadership qualities make it possible for their employees to transcend petty concerns and accomplish good work.

There are three kinds of people in this world, those who make it happen, those who see it happen, and those who wonder what has happened.  We all know where entrepreneurs fit in.

The Financial Times Mastering Entrepreneurship.  Your single-source Guide to Becoming a Master of Entrepreneurship by Sue Birley & Dan Muzyka.

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