My entrepreneurial role model? Atticus Finch

We’re all looking for entrepreneurial role models, but the fascination with the qualities of entrepreneurs is not new. Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (1921) marked the launch of research on the personalities and traits of entrepreneurs that set them apart. Many scholars have since tried to understand the homo entreprenaurus – a moniker introduced by Professor Roope Uusitalo in 2001.

For me, it’s unnecessary to compare Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to everyday entrepreneurial people, because for every Jobs or Musk there are a thousand solo entrepreneurs and talented freelancers seeking to build growth-oriented opportunities simply for themselves. The collective impact of these individuals on our economy is enormous, even if they don’t start the next Apple or Tesla.

Then there are entrepreneurial folks who have the curiosity, inner drive and sense of adventure outside of business, that have made their mark – Amelia Earhart, Christiaan Barnard, Edmund Hilary, Neil Armstrong and Christopher Bannister – all were the first to do something remarkable. Entrepreneurial success doesn’t exist solely in commercial metrics and breakthrough criteria, enterprise is a simple human act of doing and being in itself.

So what are the recurring personal qualities in everyday entrepreneurs, pushing themselves forward, often against the odds? The majority have, in my experience, strong self-belief, open mindedness and determination. However, I know others with a big ‘look at me’ ego, cultivating the aura of a pantomime villain. We often focus on the positive traits of entrepreneurs, but there are less attractive, unspoken flaws.

All entrepreneurs have a higher than average motivation to achieve and are generally non-conformists. Entrepreneurs tend to be independent souls, people who want to set their own goals. They are ‘street smarts’ – I do not know quite how else to put this – but shrewd and sharp with instinct and intuition, good judgement when making complex decisions.

Being an entrepreneur also requires you to have the right temperament. It was Hippocrates who first defined four types of temperament – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic. Applying this to entrepreneurs, the sanguine type is most closely related to emotional stability and extraversion (Bezos), the phlegmatic type is stable but introverted (Page), the choleric type is unstable and extraverted (Jobs), and the melancholic type is unstable and introverted (Musk).

Subsequent research has gravitated to the ‘Five Factors Model’ (‘FFM’) of personality, where several additional traits have been identified for entrepreneurs, including self-efficacy, innovativeness, locus of control, and risk attitudes. Researchers often mix and match these traits to describe an ‘entrepreneurial orientation’.

FFM is a multidimensional approach towards defining personality, through measuring openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. It has been the predominant model for personality traits since the 1980s.

This model was defined by several independent sets of researchers who used factor analysis and descriptors of human behaviour. The initial model was advanced by Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal in 1961, but failed to reach an academic audience until the 1980s. In 1990, J.M. Digman advanced his five-factor model of personality, which Lewis Goldberg extended. These five overarching domains have been found to contain the most known personality traits in entrepreneurs:

  • Openness to experience: describes the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individual’s mental and experimental life
  • Conscientiousness: describes socially prescribed impulse control that facilitates task-and goal-orientated behaviour
  • Extraversion: implies an energetic approach, and includes traits such as sociability, activity, assertiveness, and positive emotionality
  • Agreeableness: contrasts a prosocial and communal orientation towards others, and includes traits such as altruism, thoughtfulness, trust and modesty
  • Neuroticism: entrepreneurs are more likely to hold positive mindsets, balanced with emotional stability and even-temperedness with negative emotionality, such as feeling anxious, nervous and tense

Set against this framework, and looking for our entrepreneurial role models, we all know the old adage ‘nice guys finish last’. But you don’t have to be sharp elbowed and arrogant to be a successful entrepreneur, good guys do win – be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home!

So, who would be your entrepreneurial role model be? For me, this is captured by a comment in President Obama’s farewell presidential address: Each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch. That struck me deeply at the time, January 2017, and here’s why this fictional character shows all the personal hallmarks of the entrepreneur we should strive to be.

Atticus Finch is a character in Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a lawyer, and the father of Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and Jean ‘Scout’ Finch. The character of Finch, as portrayed in an Academy-Award winning performance by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaption, saw him proclaimed as the greatest hero of all American novels and cinema.

To Kill a Mockingbird unfolds against the backdrop of Atticus’s representation of Tom Robinson, a black man, has been accused by Mayella Ewell, a white woman, of rape. While Atticus is assigned to be Robinson’s public defender, he earns the townspeople’s ire in his determination to actually defend him, honourably and fairly, to the best of his abilities, at a time when racism in the Southern US was culturally strong.

The life lessons Atticus teaches us are priceless around humanity, personal conduct and ethics – great qualities for aspiring entrepreneurs who don’t want to be consumed by the pursuit of success. His are more than just great one-liners, Atticus gives us example after example of how to be a decent human being and a terrific parent, leading by example more than anything, a quality to be admired. He earns respect for himself without demanding it.

Here are some of his pearls of wisdom, and how they relate to entrepreneurial behaviours.

1.     Just be yourself

Finch: Before you can live with others, you have to live with yourself.

Know who you are and manage yourself well. When you know who you are others will regard you as trustworthy. To be authentic you must operate without pretences. Be confident and honest, do not compare yourself to others and do not put any effort into being someone you are not.Atticus is authentic, not trying to impress because what he already possesses internally is impressive, workable and successful.

Think for yourself, instead of following the crowd. Throughout the story there are numerous subplots, the most telling being about the mysterious neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, through which the ultimate lesson that is tactfully weaved is that it’s important to be yourself. And that’s a key point for entrepreneurs, be your own voice.

2.     Stay Calm

Finch: You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. Try fighting with your head for a change.

Be present at all times when others are communicating, no matter what their tone. Make it your intention to stay absorbed in the information being discussed, focused on the conversation and the other person. Listen to understand, not to respond. When you are not distracted or impatient to share your own perceptions, people will enjoy connecting with you.

When people feel heard and understood they relax and become more drawn to you. When you are attentive trust is developed and opportunities are more generously offered because people will feel confident they are entering into a mutually beneficial relationship.

3.     Be empathetic

Finch: I think there’s one kind of folks: folks.

Show understanding and compassion for the emotional struggles and self-doubts of others. Develop a perspective of compassion needed to imagine another person’s pain, avoid dismissing others as weak or lacking ability. Become a compassionate listener, it enables you to become better at solving problems, making decisions based on the mix of your logic, experience, perception and the person you are dealing with.

If Atticus had one dominating virtue, it is his superhuman empathy. Whenever his children felt angry at the misbehaviour or ignorance of the individuals in their town, he would encourage their tolerance and respect by urging them to see the other person’s side of things. An entrepreneur needs empathy to engage their first hires, onboard early customers and to listen to investor feedback.

4.     Be open minded

Finch: No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.

Be open to receiving and letting other people in, especially when they have a different point of view to yours. Being guarded blocks opportunity and learning, it discourages others from trusting you. Demonstrating an open minded attitude works both ways, opening yourself up to new reciprocal relationships and opportunities for moving forward. Do not stunt your growth or someone else’s.

Atticus’ approach was to be fair to everyone, to sit their side of the argument and see things from their perspective, seeking to understand, not to simply win the argument. This is a great skill set every entrepreneur needs when selling.

5.     Be a relentless optimistic

Finch: It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.

Live in optimism, when you live through a positive mindset and the ‘art of possible’ you become an infectious person to be around. As you become comfortable in yourself to see possibilities, you will instantly lighten the mood of those around you, giving them self-belief and seeing opportunity for themselves. Always look for the silver lining, the growth opportunity. Be an energiser.

Atticus is an optimist, uses every situation as an opportunity to pass his values on to Scout and Jem. Atticus’ delighted in helping people see a situation in a positive new light, and they listened and respected him because of this. One of my favourite Atticus lines is this one to his kids: Keep your head up. Your dreams are in the sky not the dirt. Every startup entrepreneur needs to hold onto that sentiment.

6.     Have moral courage

Finch: Push harder than yesterday if you want to win. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

There are different types of courage: physical, intellectual, and moral.

While unassuming, Atticus certainly possessed physical courage: when Tom Robinson was in jail, he sat outside all night reading and faced down an angry mob intent on lynching the prisoner. But moral courage is arguably the most important type of bravery, and this Atticus had in spades, and is a key trait for entrepreneurs. Atticus’s decision to represent Tom Robinson brought a slew of insults and threats to him and his family. But he was willing to bear the onslaught with head held high.

Moral courage involves the strength to stick with your convictions and do the right thing, even when you can see shortcuts – but you know it would be the wrong thing to do, even if it gave you advantage in the short term. Never seek to be the biggest show-off, simply strive to be the hardest working.

Of course, Atticus is almost too eloquent, ethical, honest and forbearing to be a C21st entrepreneur. He represented the rule of sanity over hysteria, principle over passion, and tolerance over envy. Barack Obama’s reference was deliberate to embody his quality of empathy. It’s not a quality you often see on the list of traits of successful ‘go getting’ entrepreneurs. Many would say entrepreneurs are at their best when they coldly and mechanically apply their own self-interests to get things done. There is only your ambition and cold desire to win. But that’s not true, good guys and girls do win.

Atticus Finch’s assertion of trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is the definition of empathetic entrepreneurial activism. I have come to think of him as a patient, quiet listener, a quality to which all entrepreneurs ought to aspire.

So do this entrepreneurial endeavour for yourself, for your own values, and your own reasons. Be the first version of yourself, not a replica of somebody else. Make it happen on your own terms, reflect back on the five qualities in the FFM approach, but remember why you started.

Real genius is nothing else but the virtue of innovation in the domain of thought. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life, and maybe even please a few strangers too.

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