Entrepreneur - Be Careful Using The Term

Before I start I'll ask, "Does anyone think this kid looks like me ?" Well at one point he might have, but things change. I'm not so cute anymore. What does this have to do with using the term Entrepreneur ? Well as cute as this little one can be, he also can throw tantrums and display bad behavior. After reading Isaacson's recent book on Steve Jobs and given other experiences I'll share, I wanted to address what has become an important question in my mind; "do successful entrepreneurs need to be jerks?" I don't think so.

Entrepreneur is a term applied to one willing to help launch a new venture and accept full responsibility for the outcome. The use of the term has soared in the past few decades with the rise of the celebrity entrepreneur and their associated rise to riches and fame. I've had my dealings with several of them. I'm not naming names because I don't want to seem like a kiss ass to those I admire or point out the few whom I dislike.

I think the term "Entrepreneur" is over used and misunderstood. There is something really important to note about this, especially regarding the high profile ones of today. You see all "entrepreneurs" are not the same and regrettably the title has been used by some if not many as an excuse for a variety of bad behaviors. Like the cute little guy, some are good at being very very bad.

Most agree one should never act unethically, deceitfully or abusively no matter what greater purpose is believed to exist. Many self proclaimed entrepreneurs, however do because they don't think rules apply to them. How many actually read the Isaacson book? Here are 16 examples of Jobs being a jerk. People from Madoff to Hitler could be characterized as an entrepreneur at some point and I don't think they were meant to be included under the definition. Unfortunately popular thinking about the celebrity “entrepreneur” today often promotes the importance of ego driven people valued for fame, wealth or genius with few ethics. They might take the definition and use it to their benefit. This is the antithesis of many quality entrepreneurs as some are quite employable, unspoiled and don't necessarily see their world dominated by rejection or denial. In fact some of the most humble people are social entrepreneurs changing the world.

The disturbing and irritating behavior exhibited by some entrepreneurs may be innocent in some visionaries minds while criminal in reality. The visions they promote are sometimes delusions of grandeur not purposeful innovation. While success can be achieved even by those being bad, often its through taking credit for other's efforts and even worse by fraud. Recent history bares this out. See lies entrepreneurs tell. It is rare, however, to see organizations establish sustained success, because it is much harder to achieve. It requires many stakeholders working together as you know; not one individual ruthlessly driving the train, particularly when and if they're wrong .

Characterizing entrepreneurs in the modern sense leaves out the altruistic, or those who avoid conflict and disturbing actions, or put others first and their fame, and ego last. You see the most successful ones are rarely if ever on the front page of magazines, although they arguably have the biggest impacts. That most don’t know Dennis Ritchie is a case in point; he died the same month as Steve Jobs and hardly anyone knew, yet his impact on the world of technology was arguably more profound than Apple's founder. I don’t think the fact that Dennis was unknown, low key or did not feel as though he was in conflict with the world makes his contributions less valuable. He was just a great technologist and software genius.

The world needs to oppose the "entrepreneur" who rationalizes bad behavior because they know what's best for everyone else. These types are at the root of the biggest problems in society today. It reflects "ends justifies the means" thinking creating problems from the recent financial crisis and BP oil spill to wars and other disasters that ordinary people are left to clean up. It sometimes leads to short cuts, the convenient dismissals of prior commitments or the fudging of truth; these among other behaviors that destroy organizations large and small everyday. This type of "entrepreneur" is often too proud and self serving to admit they are in over their heads and to selfish to turn over the reins. It would require admitting that they don't have all the answers or result in dire consequences from being found out. After all problems are never their fault , its everyone else who just gets in their way.

Their accomplices, people who know better and stand bye silently because they don't have the gumption to speak up, think “who cares”, no one will listen anyway. It reminds me of Frederick from the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters when he says; "You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen’ is that it's the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is, why doesn't is happen more often?". Sadly it happens everyday and its up to good people to stand up, point it out and say something, even if its about an “entrepreneur.”

The bottom line is that all entrepreneurs are the same. Who they are and their experiences can vary widely. Some are good,  others evil and some in between. In the end they really are just like everyone else so maybe we shouldn’t give people with the title such a wide row to mow. Being one is never an excuse for being a jerk.

In light of this post I share these articles. One from Maccoby in HBR, "Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros and The Inevitable Cons" which explains a lot about some "entrepreneurs". The other article is from Anthony in HBR, "Don't Confuse Passion With Competence"  . The road to hell is always paved with good intentions and to the extent anyone is asking for sympathy for the poor entrepreneur, well I say do something more useful and “get off the cross, the world needs the wood.”

About the author:

Bryan O’Rourke is a health club industry expert, technologist, financier, and shareholder and executive in several fitness companies. He consults with numerous global brands, serves as a member of the GGFA Think Tank is Chair of the Medical Fitness Association’s Education Committee and a partner in the Flywheel Group. To learn more contact Bryan here today .