Are entrepreneurial leaders made or born? This question is crucial given the vital role that entrepreneurs play in global economies. As the creators of new businesses, jobs and social innovators, they have a significant influence on global prosperity.
That influence has dramatically expanded in the current business environment as large corporates are increasingly unable to contribute to jobs growth or even to stabilise the unemployment crisis. So where are the entrepreneurial leaders who can innovate and develop the global economy rather than just secure and maintain business?
At the heart of the matter is the question of whether entrepreneurial qualities and skills can be taught and cultivated through education, or whether individuals are simply born with a certain entrepreneurial mindset. Moreover, for some there is an assumption that the traditional manager is a different breed to an entrepreneurial leader. But if this is the case, such differences are often minimal and the overlaps great.
Whether traditional manager or entrepreneur, it will take both leadership and managerial discipline to turn an insightful and promising idea into a successful venture. Research suggests that successful entrepreneurial leaders do indeed share some characteristics and habits with traditional managers, but on their own these features in common are not sufficient to explain successful performance. Their distinct complementary strengths are needed to secure superior results.
Both a successful corporate initiative and an entrepreneurial business venture depend on a mixture of factors, some internal and some external. This includes launching an idea into a carefully analysed market at the right time and speed, which cannot be successfully realised without prior experience.
On the other hand, it also requires an individual to be open to new opportunities and change, while maintaining a positive attitude to risk. Therefore, success hinges on a certain inclination towards an entrepreneurial mindset to surpass the often ambiguous and various challenges ahead.
Such complexity demands more than managerial experience – it calls for a creative entrepreneurial mind that can manoeuvre through unknown and highly dynamic business terrain. This inclination begins to unfold early on, as individuals with such a mindset often embark on their first ventures when they are young, typically after they have finished higher education and acquired relevant experience. Such a mindset so critical for entrepreneurial leaders can be stimulated best at a young age, when curiosity to explore new phenomena is high as is the willingness to learn more about oneself.
The key to improving entrepreneurial leadership skills and mindsets lies in the way teaching is designed and offered. Conventional learning environments provided by schools and universities, including most business schools, are at best designed to meet the expectations of employers rather than encourage students to explore new ideas and unravel unknown opportunities.
Instead of clinging to these norms, business schools must focus on creating challenging teaching that encourages risk taking. There needs to be a significant move from a classroom-based module to one that encourages tomorrow’s entrepreneurial leaders to create their own projects through which they are exposed to risk and uncertainty. In this way they will understand what markets and societies need to prosper in the 21st century.
Teaching needs to be entrepreneurial and allow for team-driven experimentation in an ambiguous environment, such as around real-life challenges that are relevant to the specific competencies and skills being developed. In such settings, students enjoy much more responsibility for their learning in an environment that resembles the realities of life after business school.
This helps to foster the entrepreneurial drive for risk and uncertainty that is so crucial to being able to cope successfully in today’s economic environment. It also allows students to test their ability to transform advanced managerial knowledge into practice and reflect upon it with their teachers and peers.
Most importantly, the next generation of leaders needs to develop a deep understanding of the underlying needs of our time. They must truly care about what it is that economies and societies need to prosper, and view it as their life mission to contribute to their advancement. How else will they find the courage to explore new solutions for the pressing global challenges of our time? Far beyond the pure business rationale, today’s entrepreneurial leaders must cultivate a global mindset that will generate social value and serve society.
Entrepreneurial leaders “make” themselves, they are not born. Business schools and the education they provide have the potential to provide future entrepreneurial leaders with the opportunities and the learning that they need.
The author is a senior lecturer teaching global leadership and strategic management at the University of St Gallen.