What is the one most important common characteristic of successful entrepreneurs? If you had one question to ask an entrepreneur that would uncover that characteristic, what would you ask?
The most important characteristic is Integrity.
There are countless definitions of what, who and how are entrepreneurs. There are countless definitions of the meaning of “success”. And there are countless traits and characteristics of both successful entrepreneurship and successful leadership. Much of it is myth and folklore, and much of it is the result of decades of academic research, which has yet to be definitive. Moreover, success is interdependent with time, and a key test of success, is does it withstand the sands of time. Are we asking about entrepreneurs who lead an organization for 30 years, or serial entrepreneurs who start them up?
The arena of entrepreneurship is fraught with complexity and definitional variability. But there is one least common denominator. An entrepreneur must lead, through good times and bad and through the stages and travails of personal and organizational transformation. This means leading individuals, groups, the organization as a whole, and stakeholders as well. It also means leading oneself. It has been shown that Entrepreneurial leadership is a highly dynamic continuum, full of paradoxes such as the differences between leadership and management. Kotter (1999) suggests that leadership is about the management of change, while management is about the management of complexity. But these lines are blurred and confused, and the two are diametrically opposed. Leadership is about risk and adaptability. Management is about limiting risk and maximizing reproducibility of productivity. Hence an entrepreneur must have the leadership characteristics to ride a continuously changing continuum of dynamically opposing forces and challenges of growth. And yet throughout this, the number one metric of leadership is trustworthiness, and the number one metric of trust is integrity, meaning personal authenticity and congruence, where “what you see is what you get”.
Personal integrity is the measure of how a person is in action, how a person embodies their beliefs, how a person can hold and carry forth a vision and mission. But most importantly, it is what followers follow over the long term, and the key is the long-term. Followers will intellectually, emotionally and intuitively measure the integrity of their leader(s) against their own values and their doctrines of fairness, and will over time decide to what measure they place their fate in the hands of their leader(s).
Moreover, the integrity of an organization is a direct reflection of the integrity of its leadership, and the marketplace will also measure the integrity of the organization’s brand, its’ products and services and its market presence. Hence the long-term survival of an organization also depends upon the integrity of its leadership.
Therefore, the question I ask is “how do you lead?”