Values, Vision & Entrepreneurial Leadership: Lesson Eight

You Don’t Have to Start Something to Be an Entrepreneur

It’s a fallacy to think that entrepreneurs only start businesses and then extricate themselves when the company gets too big and process-laden to allow their risk-taking, speedy qualities to be diminished. Sure, the easiest entrepreneur to recognize is the serial kind… the ones who love to start things and once they do so, restlessly moves on to the next thing.

While the classic definition of an entrepreneur brings to mind that classic start-up guy (male or female), entrepreneurial leadership is less about the start-upthat than it is about entrepreneurial thinking, the looking for opportunities, coming up with ideas you can feel passionate about and are unwilling to work inordinately hard to pursue. The fact is, you can find entrepreneurs in all departments and all functional areas of all kinds of successful organizations. You can also find them in unsuccessful organizations.

Existing organizations — the bigger they are — are often surprisingly good environments for entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurial leadership. If they have achieved scale and are look for new ways to grow, many times you can consider yourself in an already-funded start-up. If you know how to be successful in an organization, you might cut some corners and get your idea or new venture funded without ever having to talk to a bank. if you work in an industry that is impacted by technology (and who doesn’t these days?) chances are there is a lot of opportunity out their to grab if you have new ideas and the passion to pursue them. There are downsides — sometimes company cultures are not flexible and you don’t work out of your garage in your pajamas at any hour of the day or not, but chances are the upsides can easily outweigh the downsides.

An entrepreneur is defined as: a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk. ( Interestingly, the origin of the word has its roots in risk-taking. (Also according to 1875–80; < French: literally, one who undertakes (some task), equivalent to entrepren(dre) to undertake (< Latin inter- inter- + prendere to take, variant of prehendere) + -eur -eur.) I don’t know one successful leader who doesn’t assess risk and take risks pretty frequently.

Lots of people have lots of opinions on what makes a successful entrepreneur. You’ll read some of those points of view in this course. For me, the qualities that come to mind when I think of the most entrepreneurial people I know include the following:

  • An ability to see things others don’t
  • Self-confidence in their ideas (but not always in themselves)
  • The will to follow up an idea with action and a passion to make ideas tangible
  • Self-confidence in their own gut instincts
  • The ability to try things, and to try them again
  • A comfort with taking some level of risk

If I were to build on that and define the successful entrepreneurs I have known I would also include

  • A much higher than average desire to succeed
  • A willingness to go it alone if that’s what it takes
  • An unwillingness to take no for an answer
  • A desire — and even a hunger — to learn
  • A willingness (although it doesn’t always appear this way) to listen to feedback
  • The ability to get others excited about the charisma of the idea
  • A tight connection between sense of self and sense of work
  • The ability to effectively partner with others who have skills they don’t
  • They often value speed over scale
  • A willingness to sacrifice for the sake of an idea

Think about the most creative and action-oriented people you know. Think about the ones who come up with new ideas and find ways to implement them. Chances are the lists above describe them. You’ll note that the lists

Chicago Time Warp — What Will You Build?

above could describe people in any size organization and they could be people who are young and just starting out, people who have worked in the same organization for many years, or anywhere in between.

There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in all of us: some of us are just better at tapping into it than others. You’ve heard the phrase, “grow or die?” It’s part of the human condition to want to evolve and chance and make ourselves better and stronger. Entrepreneurs are a little more “grow, try or die.”

Consider how you can uncover the entrepreneur inside of you. How do you stack up? Which qualities do you have naturally and which qualities can you develop? Entrepreneurial leadership usually means that you have to think a little more pro-actively about opportunity and risk-taking. But then you still have to lead, which, we already know, is rooted in values and vision.


This is the eighth lesson in a series of nine by Jane Melvin, the founder and president of Strategic Innovations Group, Inc., a strategy and creativity consulting practice. These lessons grew from content she originally created for an online course in an MBA program.

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