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Leading like an entrepreneur

5 min read


How I envy the newborn entrepreneur. In the face of incredible odds and with little chance of survival they blindly press on with a singular focus that sees nothing but opportunity. How refreshingly naïve and idealistic these individuals are, yet profoundly visionary.

Because in a business culture where the ways of the corporate behemoth are viewed as the standard I see a new paradigm being established where the newborn teaches the aged. The lesson to be learned is today’s business leaders need a new mindset, an entrepreneurial mindset where they have the courage to step outside their comfort zones and transform themselves back into what they used to be, a newborn entrepreneur.

For the last six weeks, I have been sitting with newborn entrepreneurs listening to how they are going to conquer the world with some of the shakiest ideas and business concepts ever. The optimism pours from their mouths with such conviction that even I, Doubting Thomas, believe they actually will succeed. But it’s not their well crafted business plan or the classic hockey stick financial projections that convince me. These regular people are playing to win, plain and simple. They are all in and have not a shred of fear about the inherent risks of starting a business.

Somewhere between startup and success, American business leaders lose their edge and instead of playing to win, they embrace a strategy of playing NOT to lose, the exact opposite approach to what made them successful in the first place. The business leader’s mind becomes clogged with the sludge of bureaucracy, a philosophy of protectionism, and a fear of risk. Where did that idealistic and enthusiastic world conqueror run away to?

From this moment forward, I declare a new age in business leadership. Cast away the archaic habits of academic corporatism and its detailed five year plans, risk aversion, and clinging to irrational formalities and replace them with a new, bold philosophy — the entrepreneur’s mindset. This new age of leadership will see businesses thrive on the agility of a quick pivot, innovation by encouraging a culture of failure, and, most importantly, an “I want to win” attitude.

Newborns entrepreneurs always play to win and have the courage to embrace risk. In fact newborn entrepreneurs only think about winning. Each one that I have talked to is certain that victory is a foregone conclusion. Part of a “play to win” attitude is wanting to win. Seems obvious, right? The fact is most people would rather not lose than win, which is not the same thing. When your focus is on winning, your business is moving forward. Yet somewhere between startup and established business, the idea of winning becomes protect our lead by avoiding risk.

The first step in regaining a play to win attitude is understand that risk and opportunity are soul mates forever connected. You want opportunity, then you better be willing to take risk along with it. Risk is simply the cost of an opportunity. When you play to win, you no longer fear risk and therefore are rewarded with more opportunities. And isn’t that what we really desire — opportunity?

The Achilles’ heel for every business is the idea of change. Yet change means progress, innovation, and of course, risk. In today’s entrepreneurial dictionary change now means to pivot. I guess pivot sounds less frightening than change so when an opportunity presents itself, which is off plan, pivoting (really change) becomes more palatable.

Newborns combine the “I want to win” attitude with an open mind that change, in the quest to find success, is not only acceptable, but expected. Is change fraught with risk? Certainly, yet the new entrepreneur, bless their hearts, is focused on winning and is willing to embrace the risk of change for the opportunity of success.

Encourage a culture of failure. Encourage failure? I know what you are thinking; “Sure, and if someone throws a punch at me I should lean in to it.” Productive failures have enormous benefits, and we all talk about how important failure is to reach success. But as leaders are we encouraging failure by freeing our people from retribution for stepping out their comfort zone and then missing an objective? To create an environment where innovation and creativity flows, embrace the risk and encourage a culture of failure by allowing those you lead the opportunity to try, experiment and push forward. That is what every newborn entrepreneur is doing; taking an exciting journey into the unknown by embracing risk.

In my heart, I believe that all business leaders can learn from the thousands of newborn entrepreneurs who, every year, have the courage to take the leap of faith to start a new business. It is this boldness, combined with an “I want to win” attitude, that drives newborn companies forward. If today’s leaders would only recognize how powerful this entrepreneurial mindset is and how it could change their company’s future, I believe the American business climate would be re-energized and return to its former glory.

Tom Panaggio, author of “The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Edge,” has enjoyed a 30-year entrepreneurial career as co-founder of two successful direct marketing companies: Direct Mail Express (which now employs over 400 people and is a leading direct marketing company) and Response Mail Express (which was eventually sold to an equity fund, Huron Capital Partners). Follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.