Our Nation: So where do we go from here? Part 3

In my humble opinion, the two most distinctive elements of the United States of America's economy are freedom and entrepreneurialism.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." What is so striking about this, and quite frankly all of the U.S. Bill of Rights is the negative language. "Congress shall make no law;" or "shall not be infringed" (2nd); or "No Soldier shall" (3rd); all are written to limit or forbid the Federal Government from entering into the lives of its citizenry. This is one of the most profound statements of freedom in the history of politics, society and I will argue, economy.

The Declaration of Independence is more positive in its tone, calling out "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It is this complete commitment to freedom which beckons millions to our country each year -- from India, from Vietnam, from Korea, from Central and South America. It is this commitment to freedom which inspires so many Americans to pursue their personal visions and start new businesses -- in technology, in medicine, in transportation, in communication, in services.

This second element is the spirit of entrepreneurialism, which beats proudly in the heart of the United States of America. My father was an entrepreneur, and growing up, I saw the passion and conviction he brought to being a founder and owner of a small business. For Jerry Bell, there was no other path. It was his purpose. He was not interested in being part of a larger corporation.

What are the hallmarks of the entrepreneur, regardless of field? I would argue that the entrepreneur is exemplified by four key traits:
  1. A clear vision of the future, many times based upon intuition, for how things should be, but are not that way...yet! Yes, there are observed facts, but the entrepreneur puts them together in a new way, or sees things in a different light. They wish to right the wrongs. They wish to make things more efficient or effective. They see solutions for problems that others do not see.

  2. They have an unique approach to power and authority. In the case of established power structures, they tend to question and rebel. They are the first to call out abuse of authority, and the evils of bureaucracy and politics. When it comes to their own companies, there is no "right way," but entrepreneurs tend to make decisions effortlessly, and eschew structure for speed. They attract people both like them, or better said, who accept them. This is why some famous entrepreneurs are autocrats, and others democrats, but both models can be successful. They are comfortable with power and authority, and pursue it in a way that is natural for them, and they attract people who are drawn to their specific approach.

  3. They embrace risk. This is not to success that they are fool-hardy or do not consider some risks too great to take. Every successful entrepreneur will have a risk/reward analysis. Every one will evaluate the likelihood of success. The different comes in the entrepreneurs ability to ACT! They will move forward when the odds are in their favor...meaning 51% versus 49%. Most people will only move on an idea when they see a 90% chance of success. This is what distinguishes the entrepreneur from the rest of us.

  4. They have the ability to galvanize support for their vision. They can persuade those who fund, and those who execute, and those who purchase the vision. They tend to appreciate diversity of opinion, and can incorporate input without losing the essence of their vision.
Freedom and the spirit of the entrepreneur are indeed the two keys to our nation's past and future success. Now do they also apply to our established corporations? Can they serve as lessons to fix the financial and banking sectors? Can they help the automotive, retail, technololgy sectors? Yes, as an inspiration for new entrants, but can they help reform that which is broken? I believe the answer is yes.

I used to call myself an intrapreneur while working at Ford and Chrysler and Microsoft. The degree to which I was able to effect positive and lasting change, I embodied these four truths. When I failed, and I indeed have had my share, I was not successful because one or more of these four elements were not clear, compelling and well executed:

  1. The vision was too much of a stretch for the existing culture and structure. The new vision was at odds with what people saw as that which made the company successful in the first place. The new vision threatened internal power blocks, and elicited overt and covert hostility by those threatened.

  2. The change was seen as a power play for the benefit of the instigator, and not as a solution for everyone's success.

  3. Large companies have more to lose when they take a risk, and are therefore prone to the "90% certainty" and not the "51% certainty."

  4. The people in large corporations chose them because they were large and "safe." They are not the same as those who "choose" to join a start-up or follow an entrepreneur. With that said, when an intraprenuer or change agent has time, people will "opt in and out" of her or his team.

As I now spend more time with start-ups, I see clearly that they will be the engine of our renewed economy. I also believe that their values can indeed inspire great reform for our nation's "old school" corporations. One reason that there are "break-ups" of companies is so they can unleash this spirit of freedom, innovation and growth. Let's hope that politics does not get in the way!


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