First published in the Sunday Times on 7th June 2015.
ALMOST every time I give a speech, someone asks the question: what makes an entrepreneur? I usually reply by listing a series of traits: ambition, an appetite for risk, industry, persistence, numeracy, creativity, self-confidence, optimism, opportunism and grit. The ideal entrepreneur should have all those characteristics in spades.
But over many years in business I have come to the conclusion there is one defining attribute above all others that marks a successful entrepreneur. It is self-discipline. Possess that and all other qualities are secondary. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say willpower is the vital ingredient. As President Harry S Truman said: “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves . . . self-discipline with all of them came first.”
In a sense, starting a business is a pure expression of self-discipline. Nobody forces you to do it, and
nobody else is to blame if it fails. Entrepreneurship is a vehicle for improvement that you control, an outcome you determine.
Self-discipline is there at every turn. It is needed to keep going when others give up; to save and invest when others would spend; to work superhuman hours; to go the extra mile to serve customers; to make that last sales pitch even after hundreds have flopped.
Almost every self-help book can be summarised in a single sentence: develop self-discipline and the world is your oyster. From Marcus Aurelius to Dale Carnegie, the most important learning from all these advice manuals is simple: master yourself and you can master the world. The long ascent of civilisation is the history of self-discipline in action by millions of individuals — the discovery that deferred gratification leads to human progress.
The opposite of self-discipline is a life of excuses. Those who are lazy, or procrastinate, who are risk-averse, or unwilling to forfeit pleasures in the present for future gains, are highly unlikely to build a worthwhile business. I meet many would-be entrepreneurs who parade the same old justifications as to why they can’t take the plunge and start their own company. They complain they lack capital; I would argue they need to start a business that needs none, or be more imaginative in how they raise it, or get going on a shoestring and grow. Others say they cannot survive without the income from a steady job; I would respond that any important step requires sacrifice — perhaps a business can be started part-time, or perhaps their personal life will have to be more frugal.
Other aspiring entrepreneurs talk of how they have suffered bad luck. I worry that such an attitude betrays a belief they are powerless to influence their future, a passive willingness to let life happen to them. Those who possess willpower seize the day and actively control their destiny.
Business accomplishments stem far more from self-discipline than academic prowess or IQ. Building a commercial undertaking is a practical and pragmatic act, yet the outcome is decided not by technical skill but by a human emotion — an ability to master one’s feelings, and act decisively. Hence it is inconceivable that any computer or robot could initiate or grow a business. It is not simply that they lack the required inventiveness; no machine can replicate the almost manic perseverance typically exhibited by entrepreneurs who win, or their ability to adapt.
Self-discipline is paramount in a founder because every start-up suffers crises and setbacks. A proprietor should never give up unless failure is inevitable; indeed, many winners refuse to despair even then. Somehow they defy the odds and recover. All that keeps them going is self-discipline.
As you climb the greasy pole, willpower remains important even as you amass wealth and power. You must resist temptation in various forms — the inclination to become boastful, or a megalomaniac, or a bully, or complacent, or intolerant of dissent. Entrepreneurs and chief executives frequently succumb to delusions of grandeur because they lose the self-discipline that got them to the top in the first place. Willpower can mutate into destructive stubbornness. Leaders must demonstrate self-discipline because they carry out a plan of action and finish a task. They shoulder responsibility and should avoid blaming others, even if that is where the fault lies. No workforce respects a boss who lacks self-discipline.
Those who possess self-discipline reap advantages in all aspects of life: their relationships, their health, their finances, their skills. It is learnt behaviour, acquired through habit rather than being inherited. It is strengthened through practice and positive feedback. Genetically we possess an instinct to seek immediate pleasures. Those with willpower know how to divert their energies into purposeful, longer-term goals. They reap the benefits of investment in their careers, their family, their friendships, their home and their community.