“Icarus Qualities” – 5 Essential Traits That Can Endanger Your Venture

I’m excited that that our team is closing in on the release of the Entrepreneur Core Characteristics Profile (ECCP), an empirically developed assessment tool that provides feedback on eleven personality characteristics associated with entrepreneurial success. I’ll be writing more about the tool and the eleven qualities it measures in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I want to highlight a handful of traits that, while critical to entrepreneurial success, can also endanger your startup effort if present at extreme levels, or if applied without full awareness.

Students of human performance have long known that our greatest strengths can also prove to be our greatest weaknesses, and this seems doubly true in the world of new ventures, where early choices and actions carry tremendous weight. I liken it to the well-known story of Icarus, the tragic character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The courage and enthusiasm that lifted the winged boy away from imprisonment were the very same traits that propelled him to his death.

Here are 5 common entrepreneurial traits that I call “Icarus Qualities.” If you’re an aspiring or current entrepreneur, chances are you display some or all of these characteristics, and each of them plays an important role in the successful entrepreneurial journey.  But, at extreme levels, each of these can also prove costly or even fatal to your venture:

  1. Confidence / Optimism: Entrepreneurs are famously optimistic. Typically, they believe in a brighter future and are highly confident in themselves and in their ideas. Launching a startup is simply too difficult for doubt-ridden or cautious founders. But plenty of research shows that extreme levels of optimism can be dangerous to a new venture, resulting in rose-colored plans, over-hyped sales projections, and an inability to identify and manage risks. After studying this phenomenon closely, Matthew Hayward and collaborators developed a hubris theory of entrepreneurship, asserting that the inherently risky world of startups attracts a disproportionately high percentage of overly-optimistic founders, which in turn contributes to high entrepreneurial failure rates.
  2. Independence: Successful entrepreneurs are willing to stand on their own, apart from the herd. They can withstand the pangs of loneliness that come with 24/7 responsibility for a business.  I like the way David Whyte captures the spirit of this independence in his book, The Heart Aroused: “Following our path is in effect a kind of going off the path, through open country . . .  Out there in the silence we must build a hearth, gather the twigs, and strike the flint for the fire ourselves.” But no successful business is built on an island, and extreme levels of independence can lead startup founders to shut themselves off from critical sources of help and support, to become isolated from the very markets they hope to serve. The common desire “to be my own boss” is, in many ways, a myth. Building something that works in the real world requires that you answer to clients, partners, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders of many stripes. In the end, your independent streak must be tempered by the willingness to engage, understand and respond to the needs and interests of many, many others.
  3. Risk-Taking: While the founder’s willingness to assume risk is inherent to the entrepreneurial process, the image of the swashbuckling entrepreneur who revels in risk-taking is often overblown. Still, I have known more than a few entrepreneurs who are so wired toward risk-taking that they are essentially addicted to the thrill of the ride, as if they were on some amusement park binge. When risk-taking becomes an end in itself, rather than a calculated means to other ends, the startup ride is likely to come off the rails. In evaluating new and aspiring founders, I look for risk-tolerance rather than unchecked risk-taking, and I recommend the perspective of Matthew Eyring and Clark Gilbert in their excellent HBR piece Beating the Odds When You Launch a New Venture: smart entrepreneurs aren’t risk-seeking cowboys; they are, instead, relentless and methodical managers of risk.
  4. Creativity / Imagination: Many of the comments I hear about my entrepreneurial clients have a common ring: “Jerry never met an opportunity he didn’t like,” or “Joanne can’t help herself — she’s chasing a new shiny object every day.” Entrepreneurs are often classic idea people. They enjoy a stream of money-making concepts and are blessed with the creativity to solve almost any problem thrown their way. But this blessing can also be a curse if they fall into the trap of chasing too many opportunities at once.  Unless their penchant for new ideas is balanced with an ability to bear down and execute, these scattered entrepreneurs end up scratching a hundred surfaces but digging deeply in none.
  5. Follow-Through / Focus: The flip side of creativity and imagination is the ability to follow through, to focus on the execution of an idea so that real progress is made. This is an underrated quality, but one that shows up again and again in my observations of successful founders. Sometimes success is not much more complicated than the ability to block out distractions and get things done. Unfortunately, some highly focused founders believe so passionately in a particular idea that they become emotionally attached to it, leading them to get stuck in a narrow tactical rut, unable or unwilling to adapt to new data. This is why Chapter 6 of my upcoming book, 6 Secrets to Startup Success, is dedicated to the importance of executing with focused flexibility — demonstrating wholehearted commitment to your plan while also moving forward with eyes fully open, ready to adapt your approach or change course as conditions merit. On the startup path, rapid learning and agility are just as vital as the ability to plunge forward.

In my experience, effectively managing your “Icarus Qualities” does NOT mean diminishing or tamping down your true personality.  Rather, the key is to be fully aware of what makes you tick, then adapt and compensate for any gaps or risks.  For instance, a hyper-optimistic founder can partner with a tactician, someone more grounded in the realism of day-to-day operations, to avoid the dangers of rose-colored planning. A fiercely independent, imaginative founder can be honest about the fact that their ideal role is in research and new product development, and they can bring on other team members who excel in marketing and sales when the time is right. So, Icarus, one of Greek mythology’s most tragic figures, might have saved himself by heeding that ancient Greek maxim, “know thyself,” and then changing his flight plan accordingly.

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