What makes a great (or even moderately successful) entrepreneur? We’ve all seen the large-type business book cliches about drive, determination, and curiosity, but I find these behaviors are less characteristics than effects. In working with entrepreneurs for more than twenty years I’ve devised my own psychological profile, one that’s been largely correct. I’ve found that you can’t change or make an entrepreneur—one is or one is not—but you can help entrepreneurs recognize their own strengths and challenges, and work accordingly.

Not all of these points will apply to every entrepreneur, though most entrepreneurs will see themselves clearly:

1. Trauma in adolescence or early adulthood. This is the time when the adult personality is formed; any major upheavals during this time, which could include a death of a parent, disability of sibling, catastrophic financial reversal, and so forth will have a profound effect. It’s what I call the Scarlett O’Hara effect, as she said in “Gone with the Wind”: “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!” It’s the drive to succeed at all costs, so that there’s never the horrible feeling of vulnerability again. Often, siblings of the entrepreneur will go in a different direction. Rather than fight for success (and the stability it brings), they give up—they’re the ones who are 420ing during their break time, working as a clerk at Radio Shack.

2. Uncommon dedication to family. They want to make sure that their children never experience instability in the family. They are doting, often to the point of spoiling their kids. Sometimes they put up with dysfunctional marriages for the sake of the children (which can lead to its own set of stresses).

3. Generosity. Entrepreneurs are very giving of their time, particularly to causes that they admire. They’re also likely to help someone in their field who asks for assistance, and shows a willingness to apply the advice. If anything, entrepreneurs should REDUCE some of their philanthropic commitments.
4. ADD/ADHD prevalence. If there’s a shiny object—a new sales program, a new technology, a new potential hire—the entrepreneur’s on it, only to lose interest in an instant. It’s a matter of learning to manage distractions.

5. Less than ideal managers. OK, most entrepreneurs I’ve known are great people, but lousy managers. They thrive best when they have a key employee who handles administrative parts of the business, so the entrepreneur can focus on strategy and sales. This key employee can put up with the entrepreneur’s foibles, often shielding other employees from the entrepreneur’s outbursts and misplaced enthusiasms. Sometimes entrepreneurs are obsessive micro-managers; they do not want to be vulnerable as they were as adolescents, so they loathe ceding complete control. They may also stymie their organization’s growth as a result.
Whether in Ancient Greece or Modern Business, “know thyself”.

Best wishes,

Jim Shulman