Why Entrepreneurs Are Today’s Heroes
Growing up with a “how-do-you-spell-that?” last name like Vrionis, there have been more than a few times people assumed I knew some Greek. I’ve eaten more than my share of gyros, but the truth is I don’t speak a word of Greek and I’ve never set foot in the country. However, while in college it suddenly felt deeply important to me to read the stories about the Greek Heroes and study them. Call it a classic finding myself investment. If you have read more than two Greek myths then you know that in many ways they are essentially the same story over and over. The narrative is ultimately about some unfortunate underdog with a character defect who encounters insurmountable odds and uses the way of the hero to overcome danger. After narrowly escaping certain death and the spite of the gods, the hero finds a way through and prevails. Put simply, heroes accomplish near unimaginable feats that normal people cannot and teach us lessons about our nature along the way.
Working with entrepreneurs for the past seventeen years I have frequently marveled at the challenges they overcome on their journey to building a successful company and high functioning team. I think of some of the recent successes we’ve experienced with SnapChat, AppDynamics and Mulesoft and the numerous “life or death” crises that each entrepreneur and team faced at every stage along the way. And these were the winners.
The truth is, like the Greek Heroes in the parables, the modern day entrepreneur inevitably faces near hopeless situations on the path to success. Instead of overcoming supernatural beasts, entrepreneurs face do or die decisions about investment rounds, product failures and HR catastrophes, sometimes in the same week. However, the successful entrepreneur finds the strength, courage and wisdom to overcome every obstacle, and for that perseverance, they deserve to be wildly celebrated. It turns out they are!
It is hard to argue against the idea that successful entrepreneurs today are on par with society’s most elite stars. There are TV shows and movies about them. They dominate social media and global headlines when they perform admirably and when they trip up. Their dating and family lives are topics of tabloid and coffee shop conversations. Everyone loves the nerd-made-it-rich story. If Peter Parker lived in Silicon Valley, he might be more popular for his scientific success than his super powers. If Chris Pratt or Evan Spiegel walked into a Starbucks in Palo Alto, who would most people want to talk to?
The fame and attention that today’s successful technology entrepreneurs attain is at once both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because society is celebrating intellectual effort and innovation as much as it is athletic talent or natural good looks. Terrifying because with that fame comes significant responsibility. With successful entrepreneurs, it is not just their products the world pays maniacal attention to, it is also their behavior and example. This is where the most important connection between today’s entrepreneurs and the Greek Heroes comes in. Because the other thing we learn repeatedly in the parables is that Heroes must care. True heroism as the Greeks explained is not about strength, or boldness or even courage. It is about compassion. Hero literally means “protector” not “bad-ass” or “he who kills bad guys.”
In Greek mythology, the hero usually had a god as one parent and a mortal as the other and so they were perpetually teetering between two ideals. Like every human, the hero consistently makes mistakes. Unlike every human, the hero has innate super powers that can change the game for good or bad. Heroes openly wrestle with how to manage their unique capabilities. What consistently tips them toward greatness is their empathy and conscience, usually personified by a sidekick who helps them see the power of compassion. Empathy, the Greeks believe (as do I) is a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into. The nearly indestructible Achilles had his loyal friend Patroclus. Odysseus fought his greatest battle with his two loyal herdsman by his side. More recently, Spiderman had Aunt May. Superman had Jimmy Olsen. To succeed, the hero has to care so much for what is human, it brings out what is godly. The same is true for our modern heroes, the entrepreneurs we all admire.
We should have tremendous respect for every entrepreneur simply because of his or her willingness to tackle the near impossible task of turning a startup idea into a healthy business. To succeed requires other worldly powers. When it happens, the journey and its leaders deserve the spotlight and all the bell ringing we see these days. At the same time, our entrepreneurs cannot ignore the accountability that comes with the attention, and the responsibility to do what is right. For the hero, it is as true now as it was thousands of years ago: How we win matters. So to our modern heroes, our entrepreneurs, I say keep leading us forward! But please don’t forget that your example — and your empathy — are as influential as your ideas and products.