My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

Over the past fifteen years, a new crop of highly skilled researchers has entered the field of entrepreneurial research. They have in large part cleared away the tangled undergrowth of methodological questions: substantive definitions have been established and, increasingly, real entrepreneurs are used in sample populations. Despite the progress made in establishing a common language and base from which to compare and contrast information, most scholars in the field persist in focusing their research on what differentiates entrepreneurs from the rest of us very narrowly.

As Clemson University professor of entrepreneurship William Gartner noted: “Something gets lost when the focus of research on entrepreneurship sticks too closely to the ‘esoteric knowledge’ [of a] narrow disciplinary perspective. A finding can be right and interesting to a scholar within a specific theoretical perspective, but wrong or obvious to the practitioner and scholar with a broader and messier knowledge of the phenomenon.”

Gartner’s words struck a chord with me. And as I continued my own synthesis of existing research (with all of its elegance, and warts), I became even more deliberate about broadening the scope of my work.

What I needed was the scholarship and insight to make sense of my personal experiences as a consultant and what I knew to be anecdotally true about what makes entrepreneurs different from the rest of us. I began amassing an ever-higher pile of articles from academic journals, working papers, autobiographies, newspaper features, and magazine investigations to add to my transcripts of personal interviews with entrepreneurs, their kids, their wives, and, in many cases, their ex-wives. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was getting somewhere.

In early 2008 I was offered a coveted scholar-in-residence position at The Austen Riggs Center, which is ranked among the top psychiatric centers in North America. Riggs is a not-for-profit “open” hospital for patients who have not found success with the shorter-term biological and behavioral treatments characteristic of today’s approaches. Most of Riggs’ patients have been hospitalized multiple times in more traditional settings before finding their way to the center. Caught in a cycle of repeated crisis interventions that have failed to address the heart of their problems, they have been labeled “treatment resistant.” Importantly for my research, Riggs is the only psychiatric hospital in the United States that has a specialized focus on intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy. I didn’t have the background to examine my subjects from the perspective of a therapist, but at Austen Riggs, I would be surrounded by those who did.

The offer from Riggs was a singular opportunity to learn about psychopathology while also having the time and space to dig into two decades of legitimate research about entrepreneurial characteristics. I wanted to determine if there was an untold link lurking in the data. At Riggs, I’d be given full access to the staff, clinical privileges to read case workups, and an open invitation to attend all patient case conferences—a rare invitation for someone without clinical credentials. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see firsthand some of the most complex psychiatric disorders and to learn how their etiology is traced.

I took the position. And based within Riggs’ Erik Erikson Institute, I found myself surrounded by brilliant, caring, and inquisitive psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers who were willing to act as sounding boards and brainstorm ideas for additional avenues of inquiry.

My first week there, I asked the Institute’s director, Dr. Gerard Fromm, why he chose me over others to be the Erikson scholar-in-residence. I’ll never forget his response: “We’re fascinated by the questions you’re trying to answer, to gain insight to what drives the behaviors of those particular entrepreneurs that interest you. We have a good measure of self-interest in what you’re probing, Mark, because we believe some patients who come to us for help may be the children of the same kind of men you’re focusing on. The more you can answer your questions, and understand what’s behind their behavior, the better we may be able to understand the parental influence that perhaps helped to shape these patients and what they are now struggling with.”

That was the moment when I realized that the themes I had been identifying in my consulting work over the past twenty years—the dark side of entrepreneurship—could have more profound implications. I’d heard plenty of stories over the years about “crazy” CEOs, and I walked out of Jerry Fromm’s office thinking this project could give insight into the consequential impact these men were making not only on their investors and their employees, but also on their wives, families, and communities. This was the moment when my research truly began to take shape. I was well-versed in the damage mean men could do to their organizations, but my time at Austen Riggs begged the question: Did mean men just ruin companies, or did they also ruin lives?

This post was originally published on my blog on Sep 21, 2015.

Messy Management Research: Why We See the Entrepreneur as a “Great Man”

The image of the high-flying, individualistic entrepreneur is so ingrained in our culture today that it’s hard to believe that this archetype was not always the ultimate American hero in the business world. To understand what’s led us to mythologize this breed of worker so, it’s important to look at where we get our ideas of what makes him who he is; interestingly, the debate over whether being an entrepreneur is a practical distinction or a deeply psychological one goes back a ways.

One of the grandfathers of my field of research was the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950). Schumpeter made a clear case that entrepreneurs translated inventions into businesses, and these businesses generated wealth—a line of reasoning so central to our way of thinking now that it seems obvious. Schumpeter referred to the entrepreneur as the “Great Man,” and other scholars and observers quickly built upon that label, suggesting strongly that potential entrepreneurs might be identified and supported as a means for bolstering economic growth.

Schumpeter’s work found an admiring audience in Harvard psychology professor David McClelland. McClelland’s seminal 1961 book, The Achieving Society, showed how people could be trained to behave as those who had a natural psychological need for achievement did, could be taught, in other words, to be achievers.

McClelland’s findings sparked the beginning of an academic movement to cultivate entrepreneurs rather than simply identify them. In 1972 the US Small Business Administration began sponsoring academic programs built on McClelland’s ideas, which set the stage for the growth of entrepreneurship as a business discipline instead of a specialty in psychology. The race was on to uncover the unique formula for the perfect entrepreneur.

Most of this research—conducted from the 1970s until about 1990—was deeply contentious. The equivalent of an academic food fight broke out as researchers first took sides and then began criticizing one another’s work. One source of conflict was the burgeoning assortment of business school–based academic programs on entrepreneurship. Despite the fact that much of the field of management is based on the social sciences, psychologists felt unwelcome in a business-centered venue. Another source of conflict was that, in some important respects, the psychological view of entrepreneurship was muscled out as more practical (i.e., moneymaking) uses for the research emerged. Economists hypothesized over the outcomes of entrepreneurial endeavors, trying to determine the formula for success. Then the strategic planning advocates cut their way into line, arguing for their approach as a prognosticator of entrepreneurial success.

This conflict wasn’t necessarily bad news. Such friction is generally vital to protecting the integrity of any new area of research, ensuring that all of the tough questions and dubious conclusions are laid out on the table to be thoroughly vetted in order to establish a firm foundation for further research.

Unfortunately, no firm foundation was ever established. During this period, the percentage of psychologists based in business schools and studying entrepreneurship declined steadily. Harvard Business School became a center for psychoanalytic organizational theory, and much of this work was focused on the effort of getting inside the heads of entrepreneurs from a Freudian perspective, something that other psychologists avoided. By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that the entrepreneur was a type of manager emotionally and psychologically different from salaried managers, and while maybe not a “Great Man,” he or she was clearly a different one.

But no single discipline seemed able to connect the dots.

By the 1990s, most psychologists studying entrepreneurs had been hammered by the strongly leveled critique of William Gartner, a professor of entrepreneurship at Clemson University.  Gartner bristled at what I call the “Garbage Can” approach to understanding the psychological profile of an entrepreneur. By this point in time, a startling number of traits—some of which I’ve discussed—began being attributed to the entrepreneur. To put them all together would be to create a person not only larger than life, but also full of contradictions.

As a result of these issues, multiple formal definitions of “entrepreneur” were being used by different researchers. This obviously creates huge problems. If you and others are measuring something, then everyone needs to be on board with precisely the same understanding of what that “something” is that’s being measured. Without consensus on what an entrepreneur was, the research became an exercise in comparing apples to oranges.

For example, the guy who owns and operates a service station, earning enough take-home pay to provide a comfortable life for his family, is called an entrepreneur. But so is the guy who identifies high-potential and high-risk unmet market needs, gets investors excited about building an organization to meet those needs, scales the organization quickly, and then sells it to go off and start another firm. Are these really two of a kind?

Meanwhile, there  was biting criticism of the data emerging from some ambitious research studies on entrepreneurs. Psychometric methodology—the design of the research projects and the processes by which they analyzed data—was being raked over the coals by other scholars. Researchers sprinkled around the United States who were delving into the personality of the entrepreneur were accusing one another of being less than rigorous in reaching conclusions through the highly complex—yet possibly inappropriate—statistical techniques they employed. They were also politely reprimanding each other in research journals for the lousy population samples of “entrepreneurs” being used.

One common example: A management professor would hypothesize that certain personality characteristics were associated with entrepreneurs, and he or she would test their theory by corralling a bunch of students in management courses. The students would be given a questionnaire and asked to check a box if they planned to start a business within the next five years, and—voilà!—the professor potentially had a few hundred “entrepreneurs” to glean data from. The next step was then to run a regression analysis to see if the suspected potential relationships among variables existed. Unfortunately, checking a box to indicate desire to be an entrepreneur and actually being one are quite different.

Entrepreneurs, as it turns out, are not as easy to identify as “people who want to start their own business”; so what, in fact, are they? We’ll dive deeper next week.