Successful Entrepreneurs Are Naturally Combative

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?

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