By:  Mark Loschiavo

Whether we are talking about sports, scouting, music, dance or chess, what influence does competing and excelling at the highest levels early in life have on an individual’s success as an entrepreneur later in life?

· Are people who excel in at least one activity early in life more likely to be successful entrepreneurs?

· Given our current lifestyles, are we preparing our youth to compete successfully in this ever increasingly entrepreneurial world?

In order to draw correlations between early life experiences and successful entrepreneurial leadership we might want to first identify some key characteristics of successful entrepreneurial leaders. They are:

Locus of control: A term in psychology, which refers to a person’s belief about what causes the good or bad results in their life, either in general or in a specific area such as health or academics. It can either be internal (meaning the person believes that they control them self and their life) or external (meaning they believe that their environment, some higher power, or other people control their decisions and their life). Julian B. Rotter developed an understanding of the concept as an important aspect of personality in1954.

Discipline: Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character, or orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior…Merriam Webster.

Need to achieve: David C. McClelland from Harvard University has studied the urge to achieve for over 20 years. His research led him to believe that the need to achieve is a distinct human motive that can be distinguished from others and can be identified in a group. For example, when groups were asked to participate in seemingly trivial games (ring toss), most people randomly toss the rings to get them to go over the ring, while those with a need to achieve will carefully measure where they were most likely get a sense of mastery.

Singularity of purpose: Purpose is the cognitive awareness in linking cause and effect for achieving a goal. In general it is the anticipated result, which guides decision making in choosing appropriate actions within a range of strategies based on varying degrees of ambiguity. Purpose serves to change the state of conditions in a given environment, usually to one with a perceived better set of conditions or parameters from the previous state. This change is the motivation that serves the locus of control and goal orientation…Wikipedia

Ambiguity tolerance: The ability to perceive ambiguity in information and
behavior in a neutral and open way. In psychology and in
management, levels of tolerance of ambiguity are correlated with creativity, risk aversion, psychological resilience, lifestyle, orientation towards diversity (cross-cultural communication, intercultural competence), and leadership style.

David Wilkinson’s Modes of Leadership as explained in The Ambiguity Advantage—2006, is largely based on ambiguity tolerance. Mode one leaders have the least tolerance to ambiguity with mode four leaders enjoying and preferring to work in ambiguous situations. In part this is due to what Wilkinson calls ’emotional resilience’.

The converse, ambiguity intolerance, which was introduced in The Authoritarian Personality in 1950, was defined as a “tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat.”

Resilience: the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and catastrophe…Wikipedia

Persuasion: a form of social influence. It is the process of guiding people toward the adoption of an idea, attitude, or action by rational and symbolic (though not always logical) means…Wikipedia

Connectedness: Associated with or related to others, especially to influential or important people. According to Dr. Edward M. Hallowell in an essay of the same name, connectedness is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself.  It is a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment.  It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone.  It is a sense that, no matter how scary things may become, there is a hand for you in the dark.  While ambition drives us to achieve, connectedness is my word for the force that urges us to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships, to take strength and to grow through cooperative behavior.”

In order to probe this thought further I recently sent out a survey to entrepreneurs, who have achieved varying levels of success. The survey was limited to youth sports, and did not address other youth activities. These were the findings of the 50 respondents:

· 89.6% participated in sports as youngsters

· 46.9% excelled in a sport, competed at a very high level (regional, statewide, national AAU or college)

When the 46.9% were asked how excelling at a high level impacted their success as an entrepreneur the reasons varied. The following are some excerpts of their answers to that question along with potential correlations(italics) :

“…is that you will always encounter obstacles and adversity and it simply a part of life. You need to learn how deal with the challenge and move forward.”—Resilience

“…taught me the importance of preparation, dealing with adversity, leadership and the notion different skill sets contributing to a common goal.”—Discipline, Resilience, Connectedness

“Raised awareness of competitiveness in interactions with others, awareness of linkage between effort and results.”—Discipline, Internal locus of control, Singularity of purpose

“After playing hurt most of the time to earn my tuition in a top notch engineering school, starting and running a business was fairly easy.”—Internal locus of control, Singularity of purpose

“Learning about getting up after getting knocked down and that you win some and lose some and you have to be tough and play hard all the time.”—Resilience

“…helped me to accept losses, train harder and embrace a win.”—Resilience, Internal locus of control

“…taught me the benefits of hard work, perseverance, built confidence / faith, among other things.”—Discipline, Internal locus of control, singularity of purpose, connectedness

“…learning how to focus, and through hard work you can achieve many things.”—Internal locus of control, Singularity of purpose

An interesting aside from this survey was that a number of respondents indicated that, while they did not excel in sports, their ability to excel in other activities had an impact on their approach to entrepreneurial ventures.

Next, I convened a panel of four successful entrepreneurs. Based on the survey responses I expanded the scope of the discussion beyond sports. The panel consisted of an Eagle Scout (earned at a very young age), a national youth chess champion, a United States Tennis Association Youth regional (later collegiate) tennis competitor and an American Athletic Union (later collegiate) wrestling competitor.

Panel Discussion Observations:

A question was raised from one of the panel members regarding cause and effect. That is, do youngsters excel in an activity because they innately possess some or all of the characteristics described above, or do they develop those characteristics through the process of excelling? This question of nature vs. nurture is an age old one, but the panel consensus was that regardless of innate ability, the process of excelling in an activity at the very least reinforces the positive characteristics for entrepreneurial success.

Of the characteristics mentioned above, discipline, resilience, internal locus of control, connectedness and need to achieve, in that order, were most prevalent. Additionally the idea of persuasion surfaced in an unlikely way. For example, when a Chess Master plans her strategies, she does so with the intent of making moves that will persuade her opponent to move his/her chess pieces into a trap.

As part of the discussion, I also posed the question of limits. Is there a point at which excelling in a single activity to the exclusion of all others hampers your chances for entrepreneurial success.

I recently had lunch with a childhood friend by the name of Frank Busch. Frank and I were AAU swimmers in our youth. He went on to become the head swimming coach at University of Arizona, where both his men and women’s teams won the 2008 NCAA championship. He was also selected to coach in both the Athens and Beijing Olympics. While we were together I took the opportunity to get his thoughts about the correlation between athletes competing at such a high level and future success in business and entrepreneurship. As an aside, his father was the quintessential entrepreneur.

I found a couple of his responses interesting. While he said that most of his athletes go on to be successful in their future endeavors he also indicated that many of these athletes have never had a job before or during their college careers. Their extracurricular time has been consumed by the sport. The other point he made is that many of these athletes are so goal oriented, with the ability to measure progress toward their goal every step of the way they often become very impatient in situations where there is ambiguity of goals or measurements.

The panel seemed to agree that excelling in any activity at the highest level may sacrifice balance, which may have long-term negative effects.

I closed the panel discussion by posing a question to the audience for them to ponder as they departed.

In his book The Trophy Kids Grow Up, Ron Alsop describes how the Millennial Generation is shaking up the workplace. In it he talks about a generation of kids who have been showered with praise for the most modest accomplishment, and an environment of “trophies for everyone”. He also talks about the intense level of parental involvement in their accomplishments. He goes on to say that it has caused them to have an unquenchable thirst for praise and an acute sense of entitlement.

1. What impact do you think this will have on this generation regarding resilience, singularity of purpose, ambiguity tolerance, discipline, etc?

2. What impact do you think this will have on entrepreneurial leadership?

He also goes on to say that because most millennial generation kids have remained close to their parents they tend to relate well to adults. And because they grew up in an era of standardized test scores and a desire to score well, they tend to be achievement oriented.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

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