The unchecked ambition and corporate tyranny of Elizabeth Holmes, the arrogance of Travis Kalanick, the sheer eccentricity of Elon Musk; entrepreneurs capture the imagination, fascinating and infuriating us in equal measure.
Despite their cultural popularity, the very hallmarks of the successful entrepreneur can make them, in person, difficult to understand and even more difficult to live with. The Harvard Business Report quoted Derek du Toit: “It has been correctly stated that the biggest burden a growing company faces is having a full-blooded entrepreneur as its owner.”
While many have anecdotes about the various personality quirks that distinguish wildly successful entrepreneurs, scholars Éva Karcsics and Ferenc Szakács undertook a scientific study in Society and Economy to find out exactly what these were.
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Some of what they found paints a flattering picture of the successful entrepreneur—a high level of emotional intelligence and sociability, the ability to influence their social circles, and a keen sense of self-awareness (at least at the outset). They also found, however, that many successful entrepreneur had a marked need to dominate, a desire to present themselves in an appealing light and a drive to achieve a high social status. These sit uncomfortably with an understanding of the needs of others—and their own.
Additionally, entrepreneurs tend to view themselves as masters of their own fate. The study states, “Successful entrepreneurs selected the personality factor as a precondition for success more often than any other factors,”
Entrepreneurs ranked personality as a bigger factor in success than capital, contacts, employees, professional expertise, market environment, luck, ideas, favorable state regulations or even the marketability of their product. In essence, as the study states, “in their view success is primarily due to themselves.”
It follows that this puts a great deal of pressure on a gifted, and potentially conflicted character. Fierce ambition guided by an extreme nature, coupled with the burden of exceptional self-determination, is a fraught psychological state to find oneself in. As reporter de Vries writes in the Harvard Business Review, one highly successful young entrepreneur reported recurring nightmares of looking down from a balcony at a cadre of smiling female admires, who would soon morph into harpies, and he would wake up screaming. “If one looks at these dreams as symbolic, albeit in a simplified way, one sees some wishes and fears standing out,” writes de Vries. “One of the more noticeable characteristics of both dreams is their grandiosity; they involve high positions—balconies and mountains—the way to both viewed as fraught with many dangers.”