I have been in the Entrepreneurial game for a long time now – I just surpassed 25 years (where does the time go?). In that time, I experienced a lot for myself as well as watched countless others go through all the ups and downs of Entrepreneurship. I’ve watched ideas turn into multi-million and even multi-billion dollar businesses, and I’ve watched startup titans crater and fall. But, more than anything else, I’ve watched people struggle. Struggle to get off the coach. Struggle to build a prototype. Struggle to raise money. Struggle to grow. Struggle to handle growth. Struggle to acquire. Struggle to be acquired. Struggle to go public. Struggle to wind down a business.
At each of these steps they were offered guidance, usually in the form of leadership advice. How they should present themselves. How they should act. What they should do. And, in some cases the advice was great, in others it was terrible, In some cases they adopted the advice, in others they ignored it. And, in some cases it worked phenomenally well, in others it was laughably awful.
So, how do we make sense of this huge mess of data? How do we get to some kernel of truth about what to do, when to do it, who to listen to, what advice to accept or ignore?
To get to that, we need to understand three key concepts that, if we are aware of it or not, are fundamentally intersecting to create the friction we so often see and experience in the entrepreneurial world. These three concepts are: Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Spirituality.
The first two should come as no surprise. Entrepreneurship and Leadership are hugely common and inextricably linked as we consider how someone should lead an entrepreneurial venture. It is the third that so often goes overlooked and unseen. It is even unseemly to so much as mention spirituality in spaces as business and money focused as a venture capitalist’s office. So, let’s break these down a bit, so we’re all talking the same language.
A Model In Three Parts...
First, Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is defined in a million places, including the dictionary. But, fundamentally what Entrepreneurship stands for here, in this model, is the desire to build something new. Certainly people launching tech startups are entrepreneurs, but, by this definition, so too are people launching restaurants and non-profits, In fact, even artists, who create music, sculptures, novels, etc., are entrepreneurs by this definition. These are all people who are endeavoring to take an idea or vision in their hearts, and bring it to reality in the real world for some kind of outcome. Money is often a part of that outcome, but is hardly the only thing. Moreover, most entrepreneurs who classify themselves as “successful” do so, not because of the money, but because they were able to bring their vision to the world.
So, next, we have Leadership. Again, often defined in myriad ways, but for this model we simply are talking about how one models the vision in their heart so that it can be made real, by themselves or others. This is why leadership and entrepreneurship are so linked. Entrepreneurship is the desire to have a vision come real, leadership is the capacity to do so. In fact, there are great quotes that define entrepreneurship and leadership exactly as such. David Karp, founder of Tumblr, defines an Entrepreneur as “Entrepreneur is someone who has a vision for something and a want to create.” While Warren Bennis, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies, defined Leadership as “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” So, put neatly, Entrepreneurs have vision and want to create, Leaders make visions real. Therefore, we clearly need both for a successful entrepreneurial venture.
But, this still falls short of answering our questions above. Simply wanting to create something and even having the capacity to do so, does not guarantee success. If it did, every entrepreneur with an MBA would be successful. They are not. Every artist would be successful. They are not. Every entrepreneur who successfully built their business into a multi-million-dollar enterprise would be happy. They, most certainly, are not.
This is why the third component, Spirituality, is so vital. Now, by spirituality, we again do not necessarily mean the absolute textbook definition of the word. Rather, in this case, we simply mean that which you truly believe, in your heart. If that is guided by a recognized religion with which you engage in traditional ways, like regularly visiting a church, mosque, synagogue, etc., then that’s certainly a big part of it. But, for others who might be less religious, there are still fundamental truths that you hold in your heart about who you are, how a person should act, how the world works, and so on. If you refer to high powers, your ancestors, angels, or guides, these would all be part of what we are calling Spirituality. Effectively, Spirituality here means all of the beliefs that drive you to be who you are, do what you do, and aspire for what you aspire. The more aligned with our Spirituality we are, the more fully self-expressed and self-efficacious we become. As Psychological luminary Carl Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are.” To do so, we must deeply understand and become profoundly aware of who we are, what we think, and what we believe.
And Why It's Needed, Now
Traditional business and leadership models have eschewed such thinking. The idea was that businesses, like machines, simply needed to operate optimally. To do so, you had to get the right ingredients and processes together and all things would hum. It didn’t matter who you were, or what you believed, you just showed up and did the work, and did it well. And, to be fair, this might have been true at some level, when we consider early industrialization for example. If your job is two screw Panel A to Bar B along the assembly line, it seems more reasonable to not really acknowledge who you are – just get to screwing, and do it well, and do it quickly. The end.
But, that’s not most work these days, and, increasingly, it isn’t anyone’s work these days. Moreover, it has never been the work of entrepreneurship or leadership. So, such models that so quickly dismiss any sort of personal introspection or awareness, cannot possibly be relevant to the journey. Instead, we need to pull from more creative and artistic mechanisms to inform how we can lead and entrepreneur best.
When we look to artists, the ones that are most successful aren’t the ones who necessarily work the hardest, put in the most hours, price their art just right, or any of the other levers we love to pull in the entrepreneurial and business worlds. Instead, they are simply the ones who are evoking in others that which they have pulled from deep within their own hearts. They are the ones who have the most pure view into themselves, and are then able to bring that forward. Put differently, they are the ones who start with Spirituality, and understand themselves deeply, and then have an entrepreneurial spirit to bring that vision to reality, and the leadership ability to do so. In other words, they have all three parts of our model. But, notably, they engage with it exactly opposite of how we are often told to – starting with awareness and introspection and not leaving it to be an afterthought that we might get to after the day’s work is done.
Joy Is The Way
This is what we call Joy. Joy, despite the way that we often use the word, is not blissful happiness at all times and in all spaces. Joy is the expression of your heart in such a way that your smiles back at itself for all that you are. Joy is the highest vibration of your own inner light that illuminates your true path to leadership. Put differently, when we know our joy, it then defines how we lead, how we make visions reality. Because, when we are in joy, that which we envisioned has become real, and so we simply must tap back into that data, and that state of being, over and over again to continually call forward the best of who we can be, be it business, or anything else.
The artist who understands their joy creates better art by being able to pull from an ever-deepening well of truth, wisdom, and insight into our world that they can then express through the medium of their choosing. So too the businessperson and entrepreneur can find the most productive path to success in building their business, or anything else, by first working to deeply understand themselves, in joy.
So, when we go back to those questions at the beginning, how do we make sense of all this seemingly random data of success and failure, a clear pattern begins to emerge from the chaos. Those how followed their truths, those that knew themselves well enough to accept and/or reject advice from others in a way that aligned with their heart, those that knew their joy, used it to define their leadership, and then worked to bring that joyful vision to the world, were successful. Those that failed to do so, were not. And, yes, are there examples of people who do not know joy whatsoever who make a lot of money? Of course there are. But, do not be so naïve as to conflate piles of money with success. For the miserable and wealthy cannot possibly be what we are shooting for here.
Instead, we must reach for more fitting, higher aspirations. Feelings of wholeness, accomplishment, and meaning. To have faith that if we can achieve those things, the mundane like money will solve themselves, at least well enough. Because, take it from me, someone who has been watching this all go down from a front-row seat for the past quarter of a century, those that pursue joy and the higher-order measures are the ones who actually achieve them. Those that pursue money, may or may not, but they can almost be assured of not achieving that which matters.
So, in all, the message is clear: begin with the deeper and more introspective work to illuminate your joy. Find the truths that lie deep in your heart about how to move in the world, and then move from that place. Know that there are countless others waiting to see you do so, so that they can support you and any business you might develop, and also as freedom and a model for them to follow so that they might live in their own truths. This is the real work of entrepreneurship. Not to make money, or even build businesses. But, to live in your truth and inspire others to do the same. That is true entrepreneurship, and thereby, true leadership. And, it all starts, by going within.