Researchers have been trying for decades to establish the most common character traits of entrepreneurs. Despite their collective efforts to provide these guidelines, they have been unable to prove that certain traits in individuals consistently lead to entrepreneurial success (Moroz & Hindle, 2012). It has even been noted that there are more differences between the traits of different entrepreneurs than between those of entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs (Gartner, 1985).

So, in trying to understand the factors that lead to successful entrepreneurship, should we continue to fixate on certain character traits being one of them if the research cannot conclude anything concrete?

Before we decide let’s have a look at the areas of entrepreneurial character traits that have been researched as they do provide some value;

  1. The 5-factor model is a popular model for understanding the characteristics of individuals and if often related to entrepreneurs in research studies. These 5 factors are conscientiousness, openness to experience, emotional stability, extraversion, and agreeableness. (Kolb & Wagner, 2015).The interpretations and definitions of these terms are open to some debate though and high-risk tolerance and creativity, also regarded widely as central to an entrepreneurial mindset is not included in this model.
  2. Personality styles – these include models such as DiSC, (Wiley, 2007) Myers and Briggs and our own Circles of Empowerment Interaction Styles at EnQPractice (Geyer, 2013), designed to understand what drives the behavior of individuals. The understanding is that we are born with our personality traits. Of interest to the researchers is which of these traits are most common to successful entrepreneurs, and why.
  3. Personal strengths which stem from the thinking of positive psychology that individuals have far more room for growth in their strengths than their weaknesses.(Hirschorn, 2010) Personal strengths are a culmination of our natural talents and how much we develop those talents during our formative years. Assessments for measuring and analyzing such strengths have been developed by VIA (Values in Action Classification of Character Strengths; Peterson & Seligman, 2004), Personality Strengths Project (Linley, 2008) and Gallup, Marcus Buckingham, Now Discover your Strengths (Buckingham & Clifton, 2005)

Whilst I have found all of these areas to be helpful in my personal insights, I have never found one set of character traits, one specific personality style or a specific set of strengths to be common to the entrepreneurs I have worked alongside. Personal strengths and weaknesses are hugely relevant to each individuals journey to effective entrepreneurial leadership. But this insight is needed more in terms of developing a sound foundation of self-leadership and self-mastery than ticking off a “chances of success checklist” before we start anything.

In my experience, helpful traits such as focus, creativity, resilience, adaption, and navigation are learned and honed through the entrepreneurial experience; with failure recovery playing a fundamental part of the trait development. With the possible exception of a select few, they are seldom magically present before we start.

Another concept bandied around a lot in the business coaching world as a crucial ingredient to successful entrepreneurial leadership is “mental toughness”. A concept presented by many business coaches to be something that can and should be developed to withstand the pressures and uncertainties of the entrepreneurial environment. Paddy Uppington, in his new book, the Barefoot Coach explores the concept of “mental toughness” in both sport and business psychology, also high on the desired trait list of an entrepreneur. He defines an individual that is mentally tough as having the following traits ;

  • A huge amount of self-belief in their ability to overcome challenges
  • Persuasive and charismatic
  • Resilient
  • The ability to problem solve and make difficult decisions
  • Clear thinking under pressure
  • The ability to spot the weakness of the competition
  • Compulsive liars

Until the last trait, I was trundling along happily with a mental tick against each trait, having observed and applauded many of these traits in those I refer to above as the “ select few” and was wondering if Upton had hit on something of significance for my field of investigation.

He had, but as he explains, the list he refers to above is not of a successful person or leader in business or sport but is that of a psychopath. His point is simply that mental toughness is not an authentic concept and one we should not get caught up in as being learnable. He notes that whilst only one in one hundred is born a psychopath, up to 25% of the world’s leaders and business leaders are in this category. The only difference between a psychopath in prison and a psychopath in business leadership is the individual’s propensity towards violence. Are you thinking what I am thinking?

The primary difference to my mind, between the psychopath business leader and the successful business leader, is that whilst the psychopath serves only himself, the business leader serves his purpose. The separating factor between these two focus areas can also be found in the ego management of the individual.

In conclusion: Don’t get caught up in the defining “traits” of an entrepreneur as necessary ingredients to a successful entrepreneurial recipe. It’s not about having or not having certain traits as the many different “types” of successful entrepreneurs will attest to. It’s about developing what we do have; to build our self-mastery and self-leadership as a first and critical foundational step towards powerful entrepreneurial leadership. There is no doubt that leadership is a mental game and the best to place to start gathering our forces is inside our own minds. What we don’t find there, others will have.

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. African Proverb