A great manager excels in critical thinking and judgment. These are high-level mental functions that underlie the ability to plan and strategize. A highly developed capacity for critical thinking shows itself in the demonstrated ability to anticipate first, second and third-degree consequences of an action or decision.
Entrepreneurs often succeed because they don’t think about the consequences of their actions. They plow ahead, against all odds. Damn the torpedoes. “If I think too much about what could go wrong I’ll be paralyzed.”
I am one of those whose mental eye automatically drifts towards contemplating the consequences of a decision. What is the range of things that could happen next, as a result of this action or decision? And what is the range of impacts of each of those possible outcomes, and so on? What will people who are impacted by the decision feel, and what will that make them do? When they do that, what effect will it have on the process, or me, or them?
This tendency does not necessarily set one up to be a successful entrepreneur. But it is a skill that contributes to strong leadership, as long as one is able to turn it off at the right time and move forward, tolerating the inevitability of uncertainty in even the best-planned scenario. Foreseeing consequences needs to be combined with the humility to know these are just guesses, that much of life is unpredictable and that any choice between two pathways, no matter how diligently you map out potential outcomes, has a substantial chance of turning out to be the wrong course.
Habitually foreseeing consequences helps mitigate risk. You don’t take out a loan you’re not reasonably certain you can pay back. You don’t sign a lease when the future is very uncertain. You don’t assume the best possible outcome is likely. You don’t behave badly and assume you can get away with it or imagine you can push forward guilt-free. And as a result of this foresight, sometimes you miss out on great opportunities.
Natural entrepreneurs have the ability to carve out a mental space that blurs those consequences so they can charge forward. In worst case scenarios, screaming at your partner or your employees to discharge tension is okay because, well, tomorrow we’ll all be back driving the engine. Leases can be broken if need be. Loans will probably be paid off somehow. Bankruptcy is not the end of the world. Contracts are made to cement and clarify relationships. But if things don’t work out, surely people will go their different ways without making a fuss. “Anyway, right now,” the mind of an entrepreneur says, “I’m focused, and I’m busy getting funds or talking with key people or setting things up or thinking of the next new thing. Too much focus on consequences will only interfere with my vision or the Herculean efforts I’m making to bring it into being.”
Can one person contain both these skill sets? Obviously, there are examples of leaders who are both visionary entrepreneurs and effective managers. Jeff Bezos of Amazon appears to have thrived as a leader in both the startup world and as head of one of the world’s most successful businesses.
But the skill sets are in many ways incompatible and mutually exclusive. Is it possible to see a complex array of potential consequences and their consequences and their consequences and simultaneously push ahead, driven by a vision of what could be, a future that no one else has imagined? It’s far from easy because each of these mindsets protects against anxiety in a different way.
My own guess is that an individual who appears to be a master of both entrepreneurship and management has an additional cognitive skill—the ability to shift between incompatible mental states, recognizing and utilizing the one that is most valuable in a particular circumstance.
Both mindsets have the capacity to hurt people and therefore mean facing moral challenges. Entrepreneurs are more likely to cause immediate pain to those they work with. They have to be able to pivot rapidly when the environment changes. As one entrepreneur said, being an entrepreneur is about failing over and over. Each of those failures means some promise might have to be broken, some implicit contract breached. The entrepreneur is not necessarily callous or unfeeling. But they tend to focus on the ends, and though apologetic for some collateral damage along the way, see it as an inevitable cost of doing business. And they are personally suffering from each pivot or failure, so the impact on others doesn’t seem especially unfair.
A manager hurts people more abstractly and in the long run. Making a difficult decision to downsize or close a plant or withdraw from a major initiative has great human consequences for the individuals involved, but a senior manager may have little contact with those affected. While an entrepreneur is more likely to have to look someone in the eye and say, “Hey, sorry, it’s not going to work out.”
Is being unable to pay back a loan from a family member or retreating from a promised partnership more or less immoral than firing 2000 people to save a failing company?
Is screaming at someone in frustrated rage evidence of a character problem, while deciding that switching to more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes is too expensive merely a cold, realistic business issue?
The world of an entrepreneur is exciting and hot. It can go beyond taxing to dangerous. Personal relationships can suffer. Entrepreneurs report sky-high levels of stress, sleep deprivation, relationship deprivation and isolation. There is increasing concern about entrepreneur mental health.
But there is little risk of boredom or stagnation for an entrepreneur.
Self-knowledge is the key here. Undoubtedly there are high-level managers who are at heart entrepreneurs. Is it possible that abuse of power occurs among top managers whose drive and intensity outpaces the structure of their jobs? There are entrepreneurs who suffer too much from anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty. Know who you are and what you need to be creative, stimulated, comfortable and healthy. And then, know what that leaves out, how that limits you, how that might constrict your vision or your perception of opportunities.