Successful Entrepreneurs Are Naturally Combative

Posted by: Steven Berglas on August 04

Last week, John Mack, Chairman & CEO of Morgan Stanley, announced that he was undertaking a strategic move worthy of serial entrepreneur Sam Zell. Using up to $1 billion saved from the 4,800 job cuts authorized this year, Mr. Mack –often called Mack The Knife for his slash-and-burn tactics—plans to hire top-level executives currently unemployed owing to the 75,000 jobs lost in the financial sector this year. As Mack sees it, the turbulence in the market Morgan Stanley occupies is an opportunity to recruit bankers, traders, and risk managers.

When organizations from Starbucks to Siemens are cutting jobs, Mack is not merely bucking the tide he’s riding his jet ski headlong into it! Mack is staying entrepreneurial by employing a technique that, for him, has been tried-and-true, in a wholly counterintuitive manner. In this regard he is categorically entrepreneurial: He sees threats as challenges that exist to be conquered, unlike the vast majority of us who grow risk-averse when the going gets tough. The question is, why?

While there is no simple answer I believe that combativeness, one of the three attributes I presented in my last post as defining serial entrepreneurs, is the characteristic that best predicts who will thrive in the most oppressive market conditions. By “combativeness” I am not referring to orneriness, acting despotically, or –worst of all— manifesting narcissistic entitlement. Instead, I see combativeness as the ability to convert anger into healthy, goal-directed passion and, as a result, to be positioned to pluck diamonds from coal bins.

I am not alone in advocating this opinion. According to Aristotle:

It is easy to fly into a passion –anybody can do that—but to be angry with the right person and at the right time…in the right way –that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it.

I use Aristotle’s observation with my coaching clients, not as wisdom from an ancient philosopher, but as an insight about what enables serial entrepreneurs (and professionals like them) to sustain their passion to succeed. I support Aristotle’s quote with case studies of entrepreneurs whose drive is the result of passion. The one I use most often is Ted Turner.

Despite his many successes, Turner’s intimates would tell you that while his was building his reputation as a uniquely successful businessman, he was a very angry, at times overtly hostile, individual. This is not a criticism of Turner; the torment in his soul was hard earned. Ted’s father beat him for failing to meet (or for ignoring) the academic standards he set, and after sending him to boarding school charged Ted rent when he visited during summer vacations.

While these (and a host of other) gross insults obviously enraged Ted, he did not retaliate directly. Instead, he employed the classic modus operandi of serial entrepreneurs: Not building a “better mousetrap” per se, but building a better version of what his father tried to build. Since Turner's father was in the billboard business, Ted first followed directly in dad’s footsteps and then easily exceeded his father’s success by selling advertising on cable television. And he did so with tenacity that looked, to some, to be driven by rage.

Children (like a young Ted Turner) who experience intense anger because they are traumatized by authority figures are in a horrible position: They are psychologically wounded and feel helpless to control hostile feelings that threaten to overwhelm them. Often, they find “becoming just like the abuser” is an immediate “fix” that enables their psyche to function with relative normalcy. This process is known in psychiatry as “identification with the aggressor.”

In a complex, unconscious manner, identifying with the source of the threats is calming since the child feels, “If I am like him I won’t get hurt.” Time, however, gives lie to this belief. While a child who copes with trauma by identifying with the aggressor may ostensibly function in the manner of a powerful person, he derives minimal psychic relief as a consequence. The reason why is he is not getting angry “in the right way.”

Authentic freedom from the demons born in childhood comes only when an individual either becomes angry with the “right person” (the abusing parent) or in the right way (by pursuing healthy passions). To his credit, Turner ultimately exorcised the demonic influence of his father and was able to pursue healthy passions: Founding the Goodwill Games and bequeathing $1 billion to the UN, to name two.

In my experience, everyone who succeeds in life carries some “baggage” in the form of unresolved anger. If you can convert this anger (e.g. “I hate glass ceilings”) into a healthy passion (e.g. “I’ll promote workplace diversity training”) you can stay entrepreneurial throughout your life.
What do you think?

Reader Comments

Kurt

March 8, 2009 11:02 PM

Great article!

Would you agree that we have a choice between being successful and being satisfied.

Some interesting correlations to testosterone levels could be explored on this subject, as well.

Dr. Steven Berglas

September 2, 2008 03:09 PM

For Little Red Riding Hood:

Sorry to have taken so long to reply; vacation intruded...

The dynamic of underachievement is VERY complex. My research demonstrates (as does research by others) that it is OFTEN a self-protective strategy designed to either lower performance expectations OR not offend members of a peer group (i.e. you lose friends if you get A+ grades and become the teacher's pet; you keep friends if you screw-up like almost everyone else).

If you are interested in that aspect of underachieving, I wrote two books that address it (both on amazon.com): Your Own Worst Enemy and Reclaiming the Fire. If you want other leads, e-mail me directly.

Best,

SB

Jerron Jutila

August 18, 2008 09:22 PM

Dr. Berglas -- you are a genius! I must admit I am a little biased because I was extremely fortunate to receive the insights directly from Dr. Berglas in what was hands down the best entreprenurial MBA class I had at UCLA.

Michael Phelps must have read this blog and your books before going 8 for 8 in gold medals -- over and over he talked about how he used the negative comments of competitors and critics to motivate himself & accomplish the impossible again and again.

I also worked for John Mack years ago and Dr. Berglas' insights are spot on. I never realized it until I read this article and I found myself saying "Duh -- that is exactly it" The beauty of Dr. Berglas' mind is that he can focus in, analyze and then articulate complicated human emotions into clear directions for success.

Dr. Berglas has an amazing ability to understand the human psyche and what drives people to become highly successful people and why some are able to stay there and why others sink and burn. All of his books are extremely insightful -- my personal favorites are "The Success Syndrome" and "Reclaiming the Fire" and I highly recommend them.

Thank you, Dr. Berglas!

Little Red Riding Hood

August 15, 2008 04:36 AM

hi - where can we read more about the dynamics of great achievers?

personally i get stressed just THINKING ABOUT underachieving

Steve Berglas

August 8, 2008 11:31 AM

To: jbm_thestateofaffairs.com

I welcome disagreement and yours was quite thoughtful (with the benefit of allowing me to meet you in "the middle." For that reason, let me offer one compliment and one quibble:

Compliment: Your insight about "feeling sadness" for those who go through life "without a single problem" is not only spot-on, its support by reams of research by Prof. Chris Argyris of Harvard's Schol of Education; check him out.

Quibble: As someone trained to be a "shrink," I view diagnosis as crucial. The point of my last two (2) blogs was to examine the psyche of SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS, not all those who strive for success. The dynamics of all types of achievers --Leaders v. artists v. teachers-- are unique.

Thanks for the thoughts,

SB

little red riding hood

August 8, 2008 05:05 AM

absolutely agree - this is why my mom never pampered me and this is precisely why ill grow much bigger and more powerful than the little rich of the area

rsatina

August 6, 2008 10:25 PM

Combative and deeply seated anger are the driving core of being entrepreneurial...you are right on target. Converting the anger to something positive is the right way of releasing it.

jbm_thestateofaffairs.com

August 6, 2008 07:25 PM

I mildly disagree. Not all successful people are necessarily angry as you imply. However, if you would agree to add "stress" and "sadness" to the list of productive feelings, we can meet in the middle.

Every human has strife in their life that creates negative feelings. I certainly agree that many new developments arise as a byproduct of negative events. Every good lesson in my life that I can think of came as a result of something negative. Additionally, I feel sadness for those who go through life without a single problem - Most likely they learn absolutely nothing. What would mankind develop if life were perfect? Again, nothing.

Lastly, we all are responsible for eventually growing up and dealing in a positive manner with everything that has happened in our lives. If an eighty year old is still angry over childhood events, then they wasted a good portion of their life and energy, namely, the portion that they actually had control over. Personally, I think that whole-hearted forgiveness is would cure all of our anger.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.

 

About

Staying Entrepreneurial contributors

Renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, serial entrepreneur Jeff Bussgang, a partner at Flybridge Capital in Boston, and Dr. Steven Berglas, executive coach, management consultant, and expert on "the stress of success," share their tips for staying entrepreneurial in trying times.

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