Why continue the hero worship?

Pamela Hartigan

Tommy Hutchinson’s article in the March issue of Alliance asks why we focus on the heroic entrepreneur. What about the people in the organizations they set up who are often instrumental to its success? Social entrepreneurs cannot hope to scale their solutions without the support of other public and private sector stakeholders – and, most importantly, of the communities in which they work.

So why continue this hero worship? I would like to look at this question differently. We are all human, and we know that people and their institutions strongly resist new ideas, however great they might be. Entrepreneurs are incredibly inventive in that regard, working tirelessly to find a way to persuade others to believe in their idea. In fact, the ability to overcome these barriers turns out to be more important than the original idea.

Much of what they achieve despite severe constraints is due to the type of leadership they exercise. Kouzes and Posner define leadership as ‘the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. All leadership involves inspiration, vision, competence and interpersonal skills.’ And that is exactly what these entrepreneurs possess. It takes courage, imagination and persistence to drive through the kinds of fundamental changes needed to respond to new challenges and opportunities. And that can be done only through an open style of leadership that combines intellectual humility and a personal confidence that doesn’t confuse ambition with omniscience.

Tommy claims that those of us who celebrate the achievement of these entrepreneurs do not tell the full story of their struggles, setbacks, failures and heartaches. Not so. It is no secret that these pragmatic visionaries face enormous resistance from family, friends, colleagues and the wider public as they doggedly pursue their objectives. And they are the first to share the pain and the sweet small wins that have kept them going.

But I do agree with Tommy that we need to refrain from romanticizing the entrepreneur to young people. I always stress to the MBA students at Oxford and at Columbia Business School where I teach that it is okay NOT to be an entrepreneur and have a system-changing idea that you pursue at all costs and every waking minute. Most of us are not entrepreneurs. But wherever our careers take us, we can and should be instrumental in facilitating, supporting and strengthening the work of these determined, creative and resourceful men and women because they are producing the solutions we so desperately need.

Pamela Hartigan
Director, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

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