Businessweek Archives

The Root Of All Evil


Before the name “Daniel Goleman” instantly evoked an association to EQ, he was a brilliant science writer for The New York Times. That factoid is significant to me since it was one of Goleman’s articles – “The Psyche Of The Entrepreneur,” (February 2, 1986)— that prompted me to study and work with entrepreneurs for the past 20 years. The piece was a tour de force analysis of what makes entrepreneurs “tick,” aided in no small part by the fact that before he was a science writer Goleman was a Harvard-trained psychologist who studied with David McClelland.

What intrigued me most about the article was how Goleman substantiated a remark made by former Harvard Business School Professor Abraham Zaleznik: “To understand the entrepreneur, you first have to understand the psychology of the juvenile delinquent.” Zaleznik was psychoanalytically oriented, as were other experts Goleman quoted in the article, which is one reason this analysis resonated with me. Another reason was that as a former “JD” who never had a full-time job (even to this day), the concept that business builders wanted nothing more than “freedom from the man” made intuitive sense.

A decade later I wrote an article “The Big Lie,” that, I believe, expanded Goleman’s fundamental premise. I argued, based on a study of when and why once-successful start-up ventures failed, that responsibility for business builders going bust (psychologically) could be placed squarely on the shoulders of the funding VCs provided. From the data available to me, it was clear that losing their hunger for financial security precipitated several negative feelings in dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneurs, particularly if receiving money also meant sharing control of their business with “outside interests.”

I raise this issue today because I have detected signs of “creeping conservatism” or, if you prefer, conscious risk aversion, in the only political candidate for the U.S. Presidency since John F. Kennedy –Barack Obama— that can truly be considered “entrepreneurial.” Consider: Mr. Obama now sports a flag lapel pin that he did not wear until his patriotism was challenged in a primary debate (when he claimed that wearing lapel pins “says nothing” about one’s patriotism); of late the Senator –one of the few to oppose invading Iraq from the start— has been tempering his views on what an appropriate timetable for a pull-out should be; and, most telling, Obama now seems obsessed with distancing himself from “radicals” he once refused to dismiss since they were valuable “family members.”

I wonder: Is Obama’s “movement to the center” good political strategizing or the result of a negative reaction to both the huge cash infusions his candidacy has received. Specifically, since Obama is now confident that he will be the Democratic standard bearer in the fall and his campaign is richer than Croesus, have these feelings undermined the passion and compromised the autonomy that made him so appealing during the primary campaign? Or, in bottom-line terms as regards “staying entrepreneurial,” must the spirit that fuels entrepreneurship be predicated on “outsider status,” some form of personal insecurity, or an unsatisfied hunger?


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