The Tyranny of Positivity in Entrepreneurship

How to save entrepreneurial talents from burn out

What do you need to start a business? Three simple things: know your product better than anyone, know your customer, and have a burning desire to succeed, said Dave Thomas, founder and chief executive officer of Wendy’s, the fast-food restaurant chain specializing in hamburgers.

If you can dream it, you can achieve it. Think positive and work hard. The list of these bumper sticker wisdoms goes on and on. Lighten up. Smile. Who hasn’t heard or told themselves these well intended little words?

Being an entrepreneur for the past three decades, working with and advising entrepreneurs for more than thirteen years, I don’t buy this story of optimism over struggles. Entrepreneurship can be tough and overwhelming, made of uncertainty that our reptilian brain is programmed to avoid at all cost. Yet, we force ourselves to show a positive mask to the rest of the world when in fact, we harbor gut wrenching feelings and fears in between brief and fleeting moments of sheer joy.

The war for positivity continues to rage on entrepreneurship, claiming bright talents who get stuck in the valley of death and burn out, alone, before getting their chance to shine. Whether we decide to create a business because we want to change the world, have an itch to scratch or can do it better than the corporation we worked for, the statistics haven’t changed for decades: 9 out of 10 will fail.

Unlike hope, a genuine heartfelt emotion and strong motivator, positive thinking can be learned through practice and discipline. What if this forced positivity restricts our moves, preventing us from exercising our creativity and making the impact on our world, our companies, our families and ourselves that we dream of?

Harvard Psychologist Susan David explains her Ted Talk, The gift and power of emotional courage that being positive has become a new form of moral correctness, a rigid response that prevents us from developing the skills we actually need to deal with the world as it is.

If positive thinking is not the answer to support us from start to success, what to do instead?

Confront all facts, accurately.

It takes a lot of guts and resilience to deal with facts head on. When engaging with entrepreneurs, as a business strategist, advisor or mentor, my job is as much to dismantle what has been accepted by the team to flush out their ideas and get to the brutal facts about the industry, customer and business, as much as evaluating leaders’ self-awareness, which rules their ability to lead and execute. Davis says that research now shows that the cornerstone of resilience is the acceptance of all of our emotions, including the difficult ones, but more so, the accurate discernment of their nuances.

Too touchy-feely for you? Think again! It creates what scientists call our brain’s readiness potential, allowing us, anxious entrepreneurs, back into a charted emotional space where we can successfully and consistently evaluate risk and make decisions in stressful and uncertain conditions. This is a very common practice, for example, among Wall Street successful traders, not just a convenient Hollywood plot in the TV drama Billions, where emotions are treated like data that can be used to course correct and improve outcomes.

If we are not able to accept our own feelings, can we embrace the reality of our business endeavors and get to crucial clear-cut decisions to execute?

Upgrade your personal Operating System.

We often jump in to the deep end of entrepreneurship without much preparation or at least, as we usually discover much later, not as much as we should have had to avoid some sleepless nights. Living in times of self-obsession, cultivating our image on social media, we spent energy upgrading our hardware, i.e. our physical body and appearance.

What about our software? Do we expand ourselves by choice, by learning from others or when we have experienced enough pain? The latter tends to be the most powerful promoter, usually at our own expense, when our business, our finances, relationships or health fail. Starting a business is an intense personal experience that creates a passionate bond between the founder(s) and the company. Building it from scratch demands that not only entrepreneurs surround themselves with the adequate skills and expertise but most importantly inspire them to excel.

Inspiring others require us to have a deep understanding of our personal behaviors and beliefs as well as those needed to drive our growth strategies. The larger the gap between who we really are and who we need to be to fulfill our role, the greater the troubles. A great example of this law is The Five Temptations of a CEO, a book by Patrick Lencioni. First published in 1998, this short fable sounds so simplistic but is in fact so significant. It illustrates how the emotions we are trying to avoid influence our management style and results.

His model highlights five common temptations and their effects

  • Choosing status over results: When you have arrived at the top, there is no way to go but down, which causes CEOs to make decisions that protect their status or avoid anything that may damage it.
  • Choosing popularity over accountability: Execution without accountability is for naught. Wanting to be well liked can make CEOs recoil instead of addressing unmet expectations.
  • Choosing certainty over clarity: The need to make the correct decision paralyzes CEOs into inaction and avoidance.
  • Choosing harmony over productive conflict: The best decisions are made when all perspectives are on the table, yet CEOs avoid all conflicts, even the productive ones.
  • Choosing invulnerability over trust: Being in a position of power, CEOs do not allow their team to be comfortable enough to challenge their ideas.

Almost thirty years ago, the world wide web was introduced, precipitating us into the age of information, where we defined our identities through the collection of fragmented and staged data accumulated on our polished digital profile. But mobile has opened a window into our life in-the-moment with the connected camera allowing our continual self-expression. Welcome to the Experience age! We are no longer our two-dimensional virtual self. We have imperfections and moments of fears and doubts. These less than perfect, authentic and vulnerable moments define our character, attitude and self-awareness, and our ability to connect with others. After all, isn’t business simply people creating solutions, whether products or services, for other people who want them?

Fear is meant to protect us, not alienate us. Let’s drop the pretense that all is under control and that more information will solve our problems. We don’t need to be fearless to be entrepreneurs. We need to be brave – brave enough to face and overcome our fears, and create the meaningful relationships, with ourselves and others, that will produce the wealth we are longing for, however we define it.

The article is contributed by Carine Dieudé, a Partner & Director of Strategy at Altima Business Solutions—On-Demand Executives, On-Demand Solutions for the fundamental of business: Capital, Profit, Critical Path, Sales and Advisor. Board of Directors for Girls in Tech—Phoenix and Chair of the Mentorship Committee.

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