Mastering the Art of Entrepreneurial Leadership

Leaders deal in ideas.  They also deal in ideals.

The more relevant and significant the ideas may be, the greater and more substantial are the opportunities and challenges and need for leaders to create the ideals only once merely imagined.

Successful entrepreneurial leaders create a compelling vision of where the organization should head.

They also continuously communicate how to proceed, and energetically guide and encourage the development of the organization’s capabilities to advance that vision in a relentless and resolute pursuit of sustained success.

Unshakable will, undaunted determination and relentless pursuit of desires and goals are key hallmarks of  all truly great entrepreneurial endeavors.

All truly great leaders are marked not only with an exceptional sense of self-confidence, which is manifest on the surface and thereby encourages and stimulates others, but also with a sense that penetrates deep into the subconscious of a leader, and therefrom permeates all that such a one may be, or does.  I do not think that it is possible to overstate the power of such a type of conscious and subconscious self-confidence.

Entrepreneurial success, like success in any pursuit, is more about the consummate understanding and mastery of key principles and less about following rules.

A rule states, “You must do it this way.”

A principle says, “This works – and usually works well – and has done so through all remembered time.

The difference is crucial.

The anxious, cautious and lesser experienced may, quite rightly, try to follow rules; the seemingly rebellious, unschooled and ignorant may break rules – sometimes unwittingly so.  Moreover, all of these types of practitioners may try to succeed focusing upon only subsets of situations without realizing how all of the forces at work interact in both conflicting and supporting ways.

But the master of an art, any art, develops mastery over the form of the art using time tested and time proven principles.  The master is guided by proper principles.  And, the master well understands the wisdom of the principles he so faithfully and assiduously practices.  Mastery of their important art should be the ideal of every entrepreneur.  However, there can be little doubt that the habit of command of situations, and the leadership of persons, makes it easier and more natural to become better able to bear the responsibilities of leadership, and to fulfill the duties of decision-making which are essential to leadership.  So, leaders are learners, who learn by leading.  Yet, while leaders learn forward, they tend to understand leadership backwards.

Some of the ablest leaders known to history have been those who have arisen in times of crises and grave dangers.  Such leaders had a boundlessness of courage and conviction.  These were matched by their self-confidence, sound judgment and sense of discernment.  To them, the impulses to power seemed to be indubitably righteous and noble.  Such leaders cared little, if at all, for the rewards of power – such as luxury and ease – which cannot be harmonized with their clear-sighted and totally committed identification with their views of the cosmic purpose to which they were willing to “pay the price,” no matter how demanding or risky.  Thus, it is a combination of great faith, stirred by abiding hope, and supported by powerful abilities and strength of character which enables leaders to inspire their followers with the degree of confidence in their leadership which enables them to collectively “Seize the Day” and capitalize on the opportunities mutually sought.

But, beyond these immense and exceptional faculties, great leaders always seek to develop very great skills in their disciples.  They are also disciplined and knowledgeable persons.  They well know how to do what they are trying to do.  They are at once as efficient as they are effective.  They do the right things, and they do those things rightly.  The greater challenges they face, the more elevated and magnificent become their responses.  There is simply no mountain too high, or too dangerous, which they cannot seem to be able and willing to scale.  These are spectacular gifts when they are all graced in a single leader.  And, such magnificent powers energize the leader, and the leader’s followers.  This Principle of Power is to leaders what the Principle of Energy is to Physics.  Both Power and Energy are transformative.  Thus, they transform themselves, while they transform their followers, and together with their followers they transform their world as well.

Leadership is relative.  It is not absolute nor does it seek to be so.  But, leadership is also relevant.  To acquire the position of a leader, one must excel in the qualities that confer authority.  Many, if not most, of these have just been noted.  Summarized, these might be:

  • A keen sense of purpose, or mission
  • Self-confidence and courage
  • Skills in the necessary disciplines
  • Astute decision-making in taking right measures at the right time
  • An ability to communicate or transmit their vision.

The love of power as a motive, which all persons have to varying degrees, is limited or stunted by the timidity and fear which limits the desire for the self-direction which places one “at risk.”  This is why “Stonewall” Jackson followed his famous maxim to “never take counsel with your fears.”  That’s also why great leaders “take counsel with their hopes,” and not with their doubts, or fears.  Leaders are thus fearless persons of great faith in their purpose and mission.  Timidity, the “kryptonite” of leadership, is lessened by the habit of responsibility.  Accordingly, responsibility tends to increase the desire for power.  And, it is power which energizes leaders and transforms their followers and those they seek to serve.

Machiavelli and a host of others have written about the ways and wiles of princes, but not in a manner which is of best use in a world of free enterprise.  Locke has impactfully written on the rights of popular assemblies against kings, but how does this help businesses to compete against a host of alternatives?  In similar ways, many fine authors on business, commerce, marketing and sales have never been entrepreneurs.  So, these teachings, as valuable as they may be, must be accommodated to the world of the entrepreneur as each tries to build each one’s own future, based upon proven principles, and one’s realization of how those principles may be skillfully and gainfully employed.

In these processes one will inevitably focus upon innovation of some type.  But, every successful entrepreneur well knows that differentiation is at least as important as is innovation.  While innovation focuses upon the provider’s offerings, differentiation focuses upon the value, satisfaction, utility or delight that the innovation uniquely provides to the customer.  Innovation without differentiation seldom produces optimal appeal and value to potential customers or optimal advantage and preference for the seller.  However, when these innovative differentials are significant, whole new categories of business opportunities can be, and are, created.  Within these new categories, new opportunities are provided for many others to improve and expand the possibilities spawned by entrepreneurial leadership.  In these ways, entrepreneurial leaders have increasingly become major dynamic forces which are rapidly and significantly transforming, and advancing, our modern world.  And, it is for these reasons that entrepreneurial leaders have become many of the brightest new heroes and most glorious iconic role models of modern business and commerce.

Commerce, entrepreneurship and our personal undertakings have much in common.  It might even be said that each of us in our own personal ways and everyday living is a type of entrepreneur.  We see, and seek, various opportunities which we hope will satisfy various wants and needs we may have – and we then pursue these opportunities and possibilities using ways and means which are consistent with our values and our ethical and moral standards and the principles we follow.  As free persons, we tend to pursue those things that we want to achieve.  And the more we desire, or love what we are trying to accomplish, the better and more eager we will become in that pursuit.  People pursue what they desire.  And, they desire what they love.  So, in a very real way, even in a world which may sometimes be lacking in love, in the end it is love which moves and sustains all that is good in the world.

Sure, we want to succeed in our pursuits – but we should also want to do so in honorable and just ways that we will feel good about – and which we trust will help us to become a better, happier and more fulfilled person.  That’s what the American ideal of the “pursuit of happiness” is all about.  But, happiness is seldom achieved in the doing or pursuit of something one does not feel deeply about, nor which is ethically and morally proper.

In our various pursuits, we are both a theorist and a pragmatist.  Some of our difficulties arise in relating one to another.  We must at the same time be persons of thought, and persons of action.  The more thorough the thought, the better are the probabilities that the choices we make and the actions we effect will be correct ones.  And the more precisely executed the actions demanded must be, the more clearly must be the thought processes.  Otherwise, we will wear ourselves to exhaustion in bad choices, ways and means, all of which may produce little positive results, and may also be quite damaging to one’s self and to others..

Sometimes, maybe most times, we start only with the vaguest and murkiest of ideas, and refine or clarify them as we become engaged in the pursuit.  But, the degree of entrepreneurial talent is largely determined by how well one is able to unite into a sound synthesis, theory and practice, ends and means.  Fashioning the “is now” into the “ought to be” is the essence of entrepreneurial art.  The perseverance to have these become constructed into that “will be” of the future changes almost everything about one’s self, and one’s situation.  That’s why entrepreneurial activity is so powerfully transformative.  In these endeavors, one must possess a commanding knowledge of one’s field, the setting and the situation.  Problems tend to almost always be opportunities in disguise.  But, one must thoroughly understand the problems before one can provide the unique or preferred solutions which others seek.  However, “Commanding Knowledge” does not mean an extended awareness into every nook and cranny, and every crack and crevice of an existent situation.  Rather, it means thorough knowledge of everything germane and relevant.

Each of us largely crafts our own self forward as we seek to realize our professional and our personal pursuits.  In these endeavors, it is not so much that we are taught, but rather that we learn through our studies, interactions and experiences.  But, we do not do so alone – nor in a vacuum.  Many forces are always at work – some are friendly and helpful; others are antagonistic and hurtful.

But, the greatest achievers usually find conflicts, difficulties, obstacles and obstructions to be somehow useful.  The more resistant the opposing forces, the stronger becomes the muscle which strains against them.  So, too, for our professional competencies.  Constraints don’t inhibit creativity and resourcefulness; they encourage, stimulate and inspire them.  And challenges and difficulties are among the most stimulating causes of the positive constructive responses which combine together to help leaders expand themselves, society and other individuals too.  We learn only when we become engaged; the more engaged we become, the better we learn.

All entrepreneurial activity involves a number of human beings.  So, the entrepreneurial genius lies heavily in developing a realistic and astute view and understanding of human nature.  The first such understanding is the realization that human nature is protean to the ultimate.  The next understanding is that we humans are mixtures of extremes, and not a blended average.  We each are as good as the best that we have done, and as bad as the worst.  We also have strengths – and weaknesses.

So, a successful entrepreneur, like anyone who is able to positively and constructively interact with others, has neither a utopian nor a pessimistic view of human beings.  Rather, they know that people are a mixture of good and bad, of generosity and of greed, of selfishness and of magnanimity, of ignorance and of enlightenment, of stupidity and of cleverness, of kindness and ruthlessness, and of an almost endless variety of contraries with the less becoming elements of our makeup too often predominating.  Entrepreneurial persons tend to learn to take persons as they are, and not as one may wish, or imagine, them to be.

In this baffling mixture of traits which seems to be always changing with situation and circumstance, we must somehow function.  In these processes, we make our lives as we try to make our living.  This ceaseless effort to make our living makes us.  Just as we are shaped by our environments, and by others, we each also further shape, in various ways, the environment we inhabit, and the others with whom we interdependently interact.

The world is full of immediate possibilities and restraining practicalities.  And this is as it must be.  We want, and need, the liberty and freedom to pursue our own heart’s delight.  But, there must be laws, rules, regulations and codes of conduct which restrain and regulate each of us lest we damage the liberties and freedoms which others also, by right, are entitled to have and to enjoy.  So, we must also want and support the various restraints which should govern us, just as we want the liberties and freedoms needed to pursue our wants and desires.

Honor.  Integrity.  Conscience.  Ethics.  Values.  Morals.  All of these are at the same time both regulators and energizers.

Each entrepreneur will seek to lead an organization which reflects the substance, style and structure which is consistent with each one’s own visions and values.  The better and clearer, and more noble, or lofty, those visions and values become, the more attractive and energizing they can become to those who the entrepreneur must both attract and lead.  And this attractiveness must be both a magnetic attractiveness and an appealing attraction as well.

Businesses must attract customers, staff and capital.  In these attractions, trust is the coin of the realm.  Capitalism proceeds from credit and credit proceeds from trust.  So, trust must never be depreciated or violated in any way.  In the various halls and rooms of Cincom’s offices are posters which succinctly advise that, “Trust Builds Relationships; Execution Builds Results.”  Since it is the results that determine in the end whether a business succeeds or fails, pragmatism and excellence of execution are both essential.  But, so too is everything else upon which trust is created.  Perhaps the most important foundation of trust is truth.


Finally, entrepreneurial leaders understand that we each, and the organizations we serve, are all parts of a vast cosmos of interacting relationships and functions.  This network must be structured and controlled such that there is a harmonious, useful, valuable and profitable sense of community and concord among all involved.  We cannot privatize profits which will be shared by a few and then socialize losses which must be borne by many others.  To do so is both unfair and unjust.  Rapacious pirates and plunderers who rape and pillage society must be ostracized, and even punished, to the degree of the damage and unjust exploitation of society that they may so dishonorably inflict.  Reciprocally, all should somehow benefit in every advance and gain because, in truth, all in some way have collaborated together in diverse ways perhaps too numerous to even imagine to create the conditions and the energies needed for progress.

Management and guidance are essential to a proper organizing and functioning of structure.  Organization is key because without organization there can be little, if any, real power.  Successful entrepreneurial leaders well know and consistently practice the art of both an organizing function and also of “Servant Leadership.”  The idea that “the superior of all must be the servant of all” is intuitively realized and faithfully practiced by successful entrepreneurial leaders.  Such leaders realize that their staff does not work for the leader, but with the leader in their joint and unified pursuit of common goals.  The entrepreneur facilitates and advances the three ideas of Peace, Unity and Prosperity for and among all, which have for millennia been the ideals of many of the most elevated and enlightened persons everywhere.  So, the leader must aid each member of the team to optimally perform and serve those common interests and objectives.  “Servant Leadership” helps each to do more, and to perform better.

Much of this we each already surely realize – at least to some degree.  But, in life we learn forward.  Only then are we able to begin to understand.  This means that whatever we do understand, we understand only backwards, or retrospectively.

So, we may make many errors as we try to proceed forward.  Of course, we must seek to learn as much as we can from every situation and encounter we may have.  Yet, we must not let our failings or current shortcomings cause us to become so discouraged, intimidated or cynical that we become too fearful to continue to try.  The adage “If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try and try again” is good advice for us all.  If success were easy to achieve, then everyone would be successful.  But, we know that, like success, nothing truly worthwhile is ever easily achieved.  Nor are such achievements gained by the many.  Rather, the best of good fortune seems to favor only the few.  That’s why the ideas of dauntlessness in the face of adversity and courage amid danger are hallmarks of the successful among us.

About the Author

Thomas M. Nies is the founder and CEO of Cincom Systems, Inc. The longest actively serving CEO in the computer industry, Nies was recognized by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 as "the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit of American business." In 1992, British Prime Minister Edward Heath honored Nies for Cincom's role in bringing the software industry to England. In 1995, he was profiled by the Smithsonian Institute as one of the "pioneers of the software industry," alongside other industry giants such as Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Larry Ellison (Oracle). In 2004, Ernst & Young inducted Nies into its Entrepreneur of the Year Hall of Fame. In 2005, along with the CEO of Adobe, Nies won the International Stevie Award for Best Executive in the International Business Awards—"the business world's own Oscars," according to the New York Post. In 2005, Nies also received the University of Cincinnati Lifetime Achievement award and in 2006, was named as one of the Top Ten IT Visionaries by START-IT magazine. In 2008, Tom and Cincom were featured in a Harvard Business School Study. Email Tom Nies:

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