May
01

Entrepreneurial Courage

I find myself talking more and more these days to groups about social entrepreneurship, especially to non-profit and community organizations. This makes a lot of sense in these difficult times, because entrepreneurship as an idea and a practice is generative, pragmatic, and hopeful.
I also find myself revisiting Franklin Roosevelt’s canonical line from his first inaugural address that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It’s only recently, though, that I went back and read the entire address and discovered that Roosevelt actually defines what fear is. In fact, his definition of fear is quite useful for thinking about entrepreneurship:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Fear is to be feared, in other words, because it makes us hesitate (or even paralyzes us), doubt ourselves, stop taking care of each other, and stop thinking and creating. And, it has this power when we are unable (or unwilling) to name or fully think through tough situations that confront us.
In terms of entrepreneurship, fear stops us from being entrepreneurial or can set in when we stop being entrepreneurial. To engage our biggest challenges in an entrepreneurial way, what matters first is not funding, or infrastructure, or even good ideas. What matters first is mustering and sustaining the courage to come up with the good ideas, scratch for the resources, and build the infrastructure to make new ideas possible.
Indeed, in all my years teaching and consulting on entrepreneurship, I have found that my most important role has been to help my clients and students sustain their courage, and stay accountable to their own best ideas. All the rest, building a team, developing a venture plan, making an idea a reality, only happens because someone pushes through the fear and uncertainty that inevitably goes with new ventures or difficult moments.
So, what does entrepreneurial courage mean in practice?
First, it doesn’t mean lack of fear. We’ve all heard some version of the saying that bravery isn’t not being afraid; it’s being afraid and acting anyway. Same with entrepreneurial courage. Viewed positively, fear (of failure, of looking like an idiot, of running out of money) creates an opportunity for entrepreneurial courage.
Entrepreneurial courage requires us to manage the tensions that arise when we work with others who have different viewpoints and different ideas, as we must.
It requires us to become adept at experimenting with new ideas and being willing to fail so that we can learn quickly what doesn’t work and get to what will work.
It requires us to be unapologetically pragmatic and not let perfect be the enemy of the good and done.
It requires us to constantly fend off cynicism and skepticism about situations we face and the people we face them with.
It requires us to humbly seek and listen to the ideas of those who may not have official expertise or “power” to change things, but may simply have the authority of lived experience and the power of intimate connection to situations and people.
Finally, and this may be the most entrepreneurially courageous act of all, it requires us to identify and focus on what is good and workable in a situation and the personal and material resources we can bring to bear. This attitude is beautifully embodied in the character of Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13. Along with his famous line that “failure is not an option,” he continually refocuses his flight engineers from what is wrong with the spacecraft by asking, “what do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” Or saying, “I don’t care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do!” This is not false optimism. It is a recognition that precisely because a situation is dire, we must focus on what is positive and workable, and we must sustain the courage to act.
In my next post, I will take up the value of silos and boxes. Sometimes, before we try to think outside the box, we need to find new, imaginative ways to use the box.

  • Thanks for talking to us at the University of Illinois. I have subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading more posts! Just in case you’re ever interested, I blog at http://spanishandillinois.blogspot.com/
    Ann

  • Hi Tommy,

    A great article. Loved the reference to Roosevelt and his thoughts about the nature of fear. So important for all of us today. Coincidentally, I was at the Roosevelt Presidential Library yesterday for a meeting and reception for the new president of the Roosevelt Institute, Andy Rich. A great fellow with wonderful energy and vision. As you know, Roosevelt is much in the news these days and his social and political entrepreneurship are wisdom sources for many, including today’s White House leadership. Later, during the reception, my eyes drifted to a plackard with the very quote on fear which you cited. Being there at that moment with that brave thought carried a special message for me. I couldn’t help but feel inspired, encouraged, challenged to do my part. Here’s to entrepreneurial acts of imagination and courage!

    John

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