Startups, and the entrepreneurs behind the ventures, are in vogue everywhere. Cities across the world are sprouting incubators and accelerator programmes to attract innovative talent, to foster new firm formation.
The fascination with entrepreneurs is not new, literature dating to the C18th explores what drives entrepreneurs and whether their traits matter for the outcomes of their ventures. Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (1921) marked the launch of research on the personalities of entrepreneurs that set them apart.
Research continues to investigate the characteristics that prompt people to become entrepreneurs, and motivations that keep them on their chosen path. Many scholars have tried to understand the homo entreprenaurus (a moniker introduced by Professor Roope Uusitalo, 2001).
For me, it’s unnecessary to compare Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to the average person, because for every Jobs or Musk there are a thousand self-employed entrepreneurs seeking growth-oriented businesses simply for themselves. The collective impact of these individuals on our economy is enormous, even if they don’t start the next Apple.
The top two entrepreneurial personality traits I’ve seen at first hand are perception and intuition – success doesn’t come to those who are smartest, rather to those who see opportunities and take them.
Besides having a range of skills and traits, the majority of successful entrepreneurs are, in my experience, decent people with a strong moral compass, likeable, with integrity and honourable intentions. However, I know others with a big ‘look at me’ ego, cultivating the aura of a pantomime villain. We often focus on the positive traits of entrepreneurs, but there are less attractive, unspoken flaws.
The ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurs I’ve seen includes high levels of narcissism, Machiavellian in their manipulation of people, and over-assurance to the point of being egotistical – letting ego drive decisions is not the same as confidence based on knowledge and trust. I’ve seen paranoia reach delusional proportions, workaholic tendencies becoming unbalanced, and as a result, frequent emotional and temperamental outpourings as they look at the world myopically through their own coloured lenses.
We all know the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’, but you don’t have to be sharp elbowed and arrogant to be a successful entrepreneur, good guys do win – be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home! So who would be your role model be? For me, this is captured by a comment in President Obama’s farewell presidential address: Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch.
Atticus Finch is a character in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a lawyer, and the father of Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and Jean ‘Scout’ Finch. The character of Finch, as portrayed in an Academy-Award winning performance by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaption, saw him proclaimed as the greatest hero of all American novels and cinema.
To Kill a Mockingbird unfolds against the backdrop of Atticus’s representation of Tom Robinson, a black man, has been accused by Mayella Ewell, a white woman, of rape. While Atticus is assigned to be Robinson’s public defender, he earns the townspeople’s ire in his determination to actually defend him, honorably and fairly, to the best of his abilities, at a time when racism in the Southern US was culturally strong.
The life lessons Atticus teaches us are priceless around humanity, personal conduct and ethics. His are more than just great one-liners, Atticus gives us example after example of how to be a decent human being and a terrific parent, leading by example more than anything, a quality to be admired. He earns respect for himself without demanding it. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom, and how they relate to entrepreneurial behaviours.
Just be yourself
Finch: Before you can live with others, you have to live with yourself.
Know who you are and manage yourself well. When you know who you are others will regard you as trustworthy. To be authentic you must operate without pretences. Be confident and honest, do not compare yourself to others and do not put any effort into being someone you are not. Atticus is authentic, not trying to impress because what he already possesses internally is impressive, workable and successful.
Think for yourself, instead of following the crowd. Throughout the story there are numerous subplots, the most telling being about the mysterious neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, through which the ultimate lesson that is tactfully weaved is that it’s important to be yourself.
Be interested in others
Finch: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
When you are not self-centered, you will enjoy listening to others share about themselves. Recognise each person, whatever their status, as someone you can learn from. Being interested makes you a great networker, because people will sense you have no hidden agendas. People will appreciate the depth of your interest and experience you to as genuine and likeable, making them feel open and willing to do business with you.
Atticus explains why he respects everyone’s opinion, even those who disagree with him, but that he must make decisions about how to act based on his own moral compass.
Finch: You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. Try fighting with your head for a change.
Be present at all times when others are communicating, no matter what their tone. Make it your intention to stay absorbed in the information being discussed, focused on the conversation and the other person. Listen to understand, not to respond. When you are not distracted or impatient to share your own perceptions, people will enjoy connecting with you.
When people feel heard and understood they relax and become more drawn to you. When you are attentive trust is developed and opportunities are more generously offered because people will feel confident they are entering into a mutually beneficial relationship.
Finch: I think there’s one kind of folks: folks.
Show understanding and compassion for the emotional struggles and self-doubts of others. Develop a perspective of compassion needed to imagine another person’s pain, avoid dismissing others as weak or lacking ability. Become a compassionate listener, it enables you to become better at solving problems, making decisions based on the mix of your logic, experience, perception and the person you are dealing with.
If Atticus had one dominating virtue, it is his superhuman empathy. Whenever his children felt angry at the misbehavior or ignorance of the individuals in their town, he would encourage their tolerance and respect by urging them to see the other person’s side of things.
Be open minded
Finch: No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.
Be open to receiving and letting other people in, especially when they have a different point of view to yours. Being guarded blocks opportunity and learning, it discourages others from trusting you. Demonstrating an open minded attitude works both ways, opening yourself up to new reciprocal relationships and opportunities for moving forward. Do not stunt your growth or someone else’s.
Atticus’ approach was to be fair to everyone, to sit their side of the argument and see things from their perspective, seeking to understand, not to simply win the argument. This is a great skill set every entrepreneur needs when selling.
Finch: At the end of the day, you know what’s right and wrong. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
Be patient enough to never shut others out with prejudgment. Come to view everything with opportunity and learn to embrace human differentiation. Refrain from criticising the choices others make, even if you would never make those choices for yourself.
By practicing acceptance people will feel they can be true to who they are around you, creating openness and the possibility of opportunity. You will develop more diverse relationships and connections, and thus greatly increase your opportunities for success. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have to ‘win’ every time.
Be a relentless optimistic
Finch: It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.
Live in optimism, when you live through a positive mindset and the ‘art of possible’ you become an infectious person to be around. As you become comfortable in yourself to see possibilities, you will instantly lighten the mood of those around you, giving them self-belief and seeing opportunity for themselves. Always look for the silver lining, the growth opportunity. Be an energiser.
Atticus is an optimist, uses every situation as an opportunity to pass his values on to Scout and Jem. Atticus’ delighted in helping people see a situation in a positive new light, and they listened and respected him because of this. One of my favourite Atticus lines is this one to his kids: Keep your head up. Your dreams are in the sky not the dirt.
Simply, be humble
Finch: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.
Be satisfied and fulfilled in life by your own volition, work ethic and commitment to your success. Enjoy the serenity that comes when you don’t need to be the star of the show. Always acknowledge that your success has come with the help and support of others, and show appreciation for those who helped you get to where you are. Never hesitate to share the spotlight. When you are humble, people want to partner with you.
Atticus defends his client Tom Robinson from an angry mob with absolutely no violence. He diffuses them with the power of his words and his ability to stand tall and strong while they insulted him. Atticus represents morality and reason in To Kill a Mockingbird. As a character, Atticus is even-handed throughout the story, an attractive virtue for every human, not just entrepreneurs.
Give your time freely
Finch: Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.
Develop an attitude of abundance, be generous with giving your time freely to help others. In giving of yourself and your time you will become more reflective and a richer human being. You will need less from others as you discover the satisfaction of lending a helping hand to people who need it. As others sense this in you, they are confident asking you for guidance or assistance.
Atticus embraces the quiet quality of giving people the time they need, and as a result, people are naturally drawn to him. For an entrepreneur, people will be curious about you. Use your time to gain more knowledge and try new things. Turn down the volume, talk less, listen to others.
Have moral courage
Finch: Push harder than yesterday if you want to win. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
There are different types of courage: physical, intellectual, and moral. While unassuming, Atticus certainly possessed physical courage: when Tom Robinson was in jail, he sat outside all night reading and faced down an angry mob intent on lynching the prisoner.
But moral courage is arguably the most important type of bravery, and this Atticus had in spades, and is a key trait for entrepreneurs. Atticus’s decision to represent Tom Robinson brought a slew of insults and threats to him and his family. But he was willing to bear the onslaught with head held high.
Moral courage involves the strength to stick with your convictions and do the right thing, even when you can see shortcuts – but you know it would be the wrong thing to do, even if it gave you advantage in the short term.
Never seek to be the biggest show-off, simply strive to be the hardest working.
To Kill a Mockingbird has stood the test of time despite the fact that Atticus is almost too eloquent, ethical, honest and forbearing. He represented the rule of sanity over hysteria, principle over passion, and tolerance over fear.
Barack Obama’s reference was deliberate and in the context of appointing a Supreme Court Justice to embody his quality of empathy. It’s not a quality you often see on the list of traits of successful entrepreneurs. Many would say entrepreneurs are at their best when they coldly and mechanically apply their own self-interests to get things done. There is no place for climbing inside anyone else’s skin as an entrepreneur. There is only your ambition and cold desire to win.
However, Atticus Finch’s assertion of trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is the definition of empathetic entrepreneurial activism. I have come to think of him as the patron saint of patient, quiet listening, a quality to which all entrepreneurs ought to aspire.