Blog post by ELP Fellow Jack Griffin (Business Admin | Class of 2019)
Thanks to my class on Leadership in Organizations, I was able to reflect on my learning and create my definition of leadership. Leadership refers to the efforts and attitudes of those who recognize the need for collective action in working towards the most optimal solution, a solution greater than the sum of its parts. If leading others with collective action already carries such a positive connotation in our society, what does an entrepreneurial leader have that a regular leader doesn’t? Boldness, audacity, and a sense of urgency all come to mind for me. Of course, it’s easy to describe the attributes of hard-working people while forgetting to discuss the hard work itself. Like muscles that tear and grow back stronger through exercise, people who face the throes of creating something from nothing have the opportunity to gain new strength, determination, and perspective.
The value of being an entrepreneurial leader comes from recognizing that there are far too many problems in the world to sit idly by and do nothing. If a solution doesn’t exist today, then it will tomorrow after I create one. And the personal growth that comes from taking on that responsibility is astounding. For the remainder of this post, I will highlight the five areas of personal development that have the greatest potential to be transformed should you aim to be an entrepreneurial leader yourself.
Entrepreneurial leaders believe in themselves even when no one else does, often out of necessity. A wonderful independence is born from this. When Malcolm Gladwell came on campus to speak about this very topic in 2016, he described this trait as “disagreeableness.” The vast majority of leaders and founders don’t see the approval of others as determining the value of their work. By facing the skeptics and brushing them off, these disagreeable people develop a thick skin that’s capable of withstanding the sideswipes and critiques of onlookers. Pair this independence with an equal desire to learn and better oneself, and you’ve got a winning combination.
Entrepreneurship is a beautiful testament to resolve and willpower. As you keep your head down and start to prove the doubters wrong, your self-confidence can propel you to new heights. For those among us with plenty of confidence already, keep in mind that confidence is just a stone’s throw away from arrogance. Arrogance is saying whatever you want without being able to back it up. Arrogance is ignoring the odds of success because you think that they don’t apply to you. Arrogance is what erodes good leadership.
I can’t emphasize enough how important humility is to you and your entrepreneurial journey. Yes, it is difficult to insulate yourself from ignorant comments while also reaching out for mentorship and advice. When you encounter people who want to lift you up rather than tear you down, be humble enough to ask for help and smart enough to listen.
As opposed to self-confidence, self-awareness needs the external environment. Like empathy, self-awareness demands an objective viewpoint and openness to vulnerability. It’s natural for us as social creatures to compare ourselves to others. In our personal and professional lives, we probably do it too much. But when an entrepreneur is self-aware – and subsequently their organization is self-aware – they acknowledge that they aren’t working in a vacuum. The entrepreneur works to beat their competitors without being defined by them. Seeing where your advantages lie can help you take them even further. This situational awareness provides clarity to the big picture of your work, and that added perspective can make all the difference.
Self-awareness is most essential, though, in recognizing where you aren’t doing as well as others, and that’s never fun to admit. Sometimes your flaws as an entrepreneur can seem like things you can’t change or may even appear to be disqualifying. Public speaking, charisma, and the ability to network are all high on this list of self-proclaimed weaknesses (networking is mine for the record). But like anyone who has taken the Strengths Finder Assessment before, it’s worth remembering that highlighting your strengths can yield vastly better results than dwelling on your weaknesses. Self-awareness starts by taking a good look at yourself, moves forward by taking a good look at everyone else, and concludes by taking those insights and turning them into a way for you to succeed and be happy. Your way.
In this line of work, people are quick to claim that they’re supporters of “failing fast” and failing in general (a number of laptop stickers on campus would certainly indicate so). However, the need for self-assessment, self-awareness’s less attractive sibling, stems from the fact that a lot of the failures that end companies aren’t external. They’re internal. When I refer to failures I’m not talking about product development or finding bugs in a mobile app. I’m referring to entrepreneurs not addressing problems within their ventures, or worse, not even wanting to look at all. Cancer screenings, for instance, don’t leave you physically better off than you were before. Either everything’s the same, or it’s much worse than you thought. Despite those seemingly less-than-ideal options, therein lies the value of self-assessment: reducing your ignorance of the reality of the situation. If there is a problem, discovering it can feel terrible, but simply knowing that it exists means that you can start to fix it.
“Self-care is not an act of self-indulgence. Instead, it is self-preservation.” Civil rights leader and feminist Audre Lorde left us with that magnificent quote, and it’s one of my favorites. In full disclosure, I did leave out the “and that is political warfare” part of that quote, but we’ll save that for a different sort of blog. Nevertheless, treating yourself well is incredibly important to ANYONE who might start a business, launch a nonprofit, or simply even get a personal project or student organization off the ground. For this group of people, passion is likely the common thread that drives them forward. Passion that happens to be a double-edged sword. Again, this isn’t the passion you write about on a resume like your “passion” for problem solving or C++. The passion that necessitates self-care is the one is derived from working on what you love, your creation that you want so desperately to succeed.
Unfortunately, the urge to further your passion can negatively impact your mental well-being. Rationalization is the first sign of this, especially when there’s no one to tell you to stop. Working yourself into the ground is not a long-term strategy for success. Even though hard work and hustling have their merits, always putting in the extra work easily warps into an unsustainable burden. This is not limited to entrepreneurship by the way. My mission for this topic is to have you think about how you decompress. Is it reading, listening to music, or just sitting in the sun? Whatever the case may be, the reward for taking an hour to treat yourself well likely exceeds the value in working an additional hour in an already frantic schedule. It’s easy to romanticize the hustle, but you are what matters most. Work can’t be everything.
Yea, I’m super biased because of my nonprofit work. Regardless, having the entirety of the value of entrepreneurial leadership be self-oriented just flat-out isn’t right and isn’t true. Through building something yourself, through building a team to support that effort, you have the chance to be terrifically selfless. At the worst, you understand the needs of your colleagues more and why they joined you on this mission, regardless of whether your venture succeeds or not. At its best though, your new offering to the world meaningfully helps people, puts a smile on their face, and positively influences their lives. That experience is almost indescribable. It takes you all the way back to why you started this journey in the first place.
Just like the 5 year olds who already know that they want to be doctors or teachers (and then follow through on their dreams), entrepreneurship is a more of a compulsion than a desire. In leaving your mark on the world, you can improve people’s physical, emotional, personal, professional, and economic health. In doing so, you fall onto a spectrum. Would you rather transform or even save lives on a smaller scale or help millions of people with a problem that they cope with every day? What about something in between? The things you love to do aren’t decided for you. The choice is yours and yours alone.
Honestly, “entrepreneurial leader” is an ambiguous term made up of ambiguous words. All of it can mean different things to different people. On one hand, anybody can make up their own definition. On the other, you can craft your own definition of the entrepreneurial leader you want to be. Envisioning your ideal self as a leader is how you start to become that person. The value of being an entrepreneurial leader looks different for me than it might for you. No matter what, the value will always be extraordinary and absolutely worth the effort.