The Great Founder: Know Your Character Flaws

Damocles-WestallPC20080120-8842A
The classic story related to the picture can be found under Parable of The Sword of Damocles as told by Cicero. It can be interpreted a number of different ways including: happiness is fleeting; one cannot experience what someone knows until you “walk in their shoes;” something is going to go wrong; I’m missing something, there is something I don’t see. Painting by Richard Westall.

Overview

Success requires taking a hard look at your flaws. Discover major types of character flaws and the nature of the fatal flaw preventing success that causes one to fall from the heights of success to the depths of failure.

Know Your Flaws 

By Murray Johannsen (March 2014). Feel free to connect with the author by  Linkedin,  Google+  or by  email.

Despite the best efforts of the thousands of universities to prepare their graduates, it’s been estimated that 50% of all careers will derail (Gentry & Chappelow, 2009). It’s cold comfort for many to know that a career train wreck looms for many in the future.

Entrepreneurs also face a difficult road to success. The five-year survival rate of start-ups is at best 50% (SBA, n.d.) & (Robb & Farhat, 2013). This number gets much smaller skill if you include all the individuals slaving away on business plans that fail to get funded.

Routinely, I asked my students, mostly MBAs, to develop a list of strengths and weaknesses. Some do quite well and show a great deal of insight. But others show a complete lack of insight. I remember in one case, a student submitted one strength and one weakness. Perhaps when he is 60 years old, and has spent his entire life making continuous improvements to self, he’ll have one weakness. But this was a young man of twenty-five.

This student is extreme, but what’s more interesting is the fact unless you have engaged in a serious program of self-improvement, one should always have more weaknesses than strengths.

Sometimes we forget that most basic things in life. Being blind to one’s own weaknesses is common, so common that it’s rare to find someone who can clearly articulate in great detail the differences between what they are good at and what they’re not.

Why Ignoring Flaws and Focusing Strengths Often Doesn’t Work

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ― Benjamin Franklin

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One needs strengths and you are often hired for those strengths. But like this man, you can be great machinist, but that won’t prevent you from being fired.

There are some people who simply say, “Just focus on making your strengths, stronger. That’s all you need to succeed.” “Yet, even a great entrepreneur like Steve Jobs got fired, and it  wasn’t because of his many strengths.”

Of course one needs strengths. If you are a professional gamer in World of Warcraft, play the clarinet in the band, iron shirts in the launder, wash dishes in a restaurant, or drive a taxi, maybe one strength is enough. There are careers that allow you to just have one strength.

You can be a nasty boy but it don’t matter if the only thing you do 10 hours a day is write code. And maybe you can get through life  by being a technologist and just play on the machine. But don’t expect to be a supervisor, a manager, a team leader, a project manager, an entrepreneur or an executive. In fact, don’t expect to do anything requiring leadership or management skills.

Remember, Character Flaws Hold you Back

Think about it. We avoid buying flawed fruit in the supermarket; choosing instead no blemishes. You may be able to hide your weaknesses during interviewing, but clearly if you been around for a while, others know you aren’t executive material. Those with money and power want the best all around dog in show, not the one with the best looking paw.

But managers, executives and entrepreneurs must never stop working on weaknesses — for these prevent getting to the next level. At some point we need to pivot and face head on what holds us back.

Statue_of_Lady_Justice_in_Frankfurt

Being blind to one’s own weaknesses is common, so common that it’s rare to find someone who can clearly articulate in great detail the differences between what they are good at and what they’re not.

Routinely, I ask my MBA students to develop a list of strengths and weaknesses. Some do quite well and show a great deal of insight. But most show a complete lack of self-understanding.

I remember in one case, a student submitted one strength and one weakness. Perhaps when he is 60 years old, and has spent his entire life making continuous improvements to self, he’ll have one weakness. But this was a young man of twenty-five.

This student is extreme, but what’s more interesting is the fact unless you have engaged in a serious program of self-improvement for a long time, one should always have more weaknesses than strengths.

Failing by a Thousand Cuts

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ― Abraham Lincoln

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It’s been said that you can die from a major wound. But the same thing can happen if you suffer from a thousand small cuts. Originally, the term referred to a type of corporal punishment practiced in Imperial China. Today, it refers to a number of small causes leading to failure.

Doctors tell us the more risk factors you have, the more likely you will suffer from a heart attack. Likewise, the more weaknesses you have, the more likely you will derail your career. Weaknesses such as:

    • Faking attention,
    • Agreeing then doing something different,
    • Not being open to negative feedback,
    • Failing to repair relationships, and
    • Not being sincere in apologies (or worse, never apologizing).

Also, remember the greater your responsibilities, the more small weaknesses gets magnified. We might tolerate poor soft skills in a staff engineer, but not in the vice-president of engineering.

If spotting and fixing flaws were just a simple matter of building skills, we could simply call in the professors and the trainers. But it is not. It involves other factors.

“One can always come up with a thousand reasons not to do something.” —Lyle Johannsen, The Fatal Flaw in the Business

One might consider a flaw to be a type of entry barrier. Entry barriers exist for a variety of reasons. Some originate from law or regulation, others exist due to the nature of the industry, and still others are generated by smart competitors to keep new entrants from playing in their ballpark.

It is the fundamental challenge for the Founder to craft a way to go over, under or around these barriers. One common entrepreneurial barrier — getting the seed capital. After all, if you can’t find the money, the red light never turns to green and you are stuck in park.

A fatal flaw is a bit of a mislabel. It’s usually not just one thing. It’s typically a number of weaknesses that together cause the person and the business to fail. In some respects, investors act like teachers grading an exam. In grading mode, they don’t care about what’s right, they are obsessed with finding what’s wrong.

Before putting down the money, most investors focus on finding the fatal flaw in the business. Typically this is defined as the factor or factors that won’t make the business model work. For example, in the boom days beginning in 1996 after the Netscape IPO, investors were funding dotcoms on the basis of a business plan—few questions asked. Million dollar investments made on the expectation that with eyeballs on the screen come revenues in the pocketbook. A huge number of them failed, the fatal flaw being the average cost of customer acquisition or a too big to close burn rate.

Investors tend to be pretty savvy digging around and finding the fatal flaw in the business model. They have all sorts of checklists used during the due diligence process. Legions of accountants, lawyers and consultants stand ready to point out the many problems in the business plan. But sometimes the problem isn’t in the business model, it’s within the entrepreneur.

Five Major Flaws in The Entrepreneur

“When you stop learning, you should find a different job.” — Advice the author received from his first mentor.

Entrepreneurs have weaknesses too numerous to mention. And yet, few of them understand their own weaknesses. This is a difficult truth to swallow. One quick example, when teaching ethics I will often ask for weaknesses. To make it a bit challenging, I would not specific a minimum, but would ask for as many as possible. You would be amazed to know how many have ten or less. One student even came in with one.

Weaknesses are often brought up in an interview. Of course, the standard response is to bring up a strength packaged as a weakness. For example, “I’m so highly motivated that sometimes I don’t know when to stop working on a project.”

There’s a number of these subtle red flags—a banners that doesn’t go away when the check is written, entrepreneurial weaknesses the are grouped under the categories of: ignorance and skill deficits, inexperience, incompetence, delusion and single-minded focus.

Ignorance and Skill Deficits

“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” —Carl Popper

Founder ignorance is not on most peoples’ list of why you shouldn’t invest, but it’s on mine. You cannot know everything you need to know to run a business. Still, it’s not the lack of knowledge that’s critical—it’s the refusal to acquire it.

Its amazing how few founders consider sales a necessary competency. I suppose in some cases, the app does sell itself. And you might have an ecommerce site that functions in perpetual income generating mode. But even then, you can’t go wrong by having persuasive skills to influence those pesky stakeholders.

Another problem—one can know but not do. Let’s call this the problem with professors. Professors are smart and they are book learned. They have command of a great deal of useful (and useless) information. But many cannot apply what they know. Two examples: entrepreneurial professors rarely run their own businesses and teaching medicine is different from the practicing it.

Inexperience

Bankers are fond of saying that a business fails when it runs out of money. True, true. But money is an effect, not a cause. Over the years, many studies have looked at the cause(s) for running out of money. Results vary widely depending on the industry and how researchers frame their questions. However, it’s worth remembering one study done many years back.

In this study, Dun and Bradstreet looked at reasons why companies decline and go into bankruptcy. Disaster accounted for: .8%; fraud, .5%; neglect, .8%; and unknown reasons 5.8%. This leaves 92.1% of failures attributed to managerial inexperience/incompetence. Of this last category, two causes (inadequate sales and competitive weakness) account for 83% of the variance.

Incompetence

Incompetence doesn’t just exist in new businesses, it also creeps into long established ones. Peters (1996) referred to this as The Peter Principle. The short version goes, “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

The rule applies to all levels of the hierarchy, from the very top to the bottom. It’s easy to see janitorial incompetence when the floors aren’t being swept and the trash isn’t taken out. But it’s hard to know when a CEO is incompetent. Even when this becomes common knowledge, they often leave with their firms golden parachutes (Kloeffler, 2012). Not a bad job if you can get it.

Big companies can muddle through with a bad CEO or two. However, an ignorant, inexperienced and incompetent entrepreneur is a cancer inside a small medium enterprise—one fatal to growth.

If you still don’t think this is a problem, you should look closely at a series of experiments in psychology that came to be known as the Druming-Kruger Effect. In a Psychology Today article by Hawes and Grazioplean (2010), the Dunning-Kruger Effect is described as, “A cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of this ineptitude.

Single-Minded Focus

We also see some weaknesses embedded within strengths. Normally the flaw is one related to single-minded focus, what the psychologists can functional fixedness. It’s like looking at a rainbow and only seeing the color green. Some examples:

The Extreme Manager. Typically its an MBA who deludes himself into thinking that entrepreneurs are just mangers and that they can manage the business into success.

The Technologist. This is the inventor who thinks that the product will sell itself. The flaw is related to an old saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson written in his journal in 1855. It goes, “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” However, there is another version by Sarah Yule that goes, “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

Unfortunately for the inventor, their inventions may not pay-off economically as the following example from (Hope, 1966) illustrates, “Of the more than forty-four hundred mousetraps patented, fewer than two dozen have earned their creators a cent.”

Character flaws. Those who fell from power due to personal failings have been well documented by the historians. Hubris, for example, was a fatal flaw in the tyrant, one of the more common reasons for the fall of the powerful back to earth. Wannabe entrepreneurs who are not coachable suffer a similar flaw. Unfortunately, there are many such character flaws including personality disorders such as extreme narcissism.

Delusion

Delusion is a strange thing. The Buddhist definition—a false belief that causes suffering. This type of delusion is not crazy, odd or unusual—it can be held by millions. What’s worse, strong delusions resist being changed. Many are learned in families, but a surprising number originate in universities.

The best way to understand entrepreneurial delusions is to understand how they are taught. Those without college degrees just figure it out. Others with technical degrees such as computer science also figure it out.

Still others take entrepreneurial courses at a university thinking the professors have the answer. Unfortunately, many do not. One reason is that professors lack feedback on what works and what doesn’t, since only a small number of full-time faculty have ever run a business. I remember as a graduate student I worked for a professor who had his small business textbook up to the 7th edition — and he never bothered starting a business.

Textbooks present another problem. Of three commonly used textbooks I examined, (Katz and Green, 2011), (Mariotti and Glackin, 2010), (Timmons and Spinelli, 2008), none of them emphasized the importance of building entrepreneurial teams. Nor did they tell students how to do so. And none of them addressed the importance of personal improvement in evolving into a Great Founder. 

The Nature of the Fatal Flaw

The Fatal Flaw is a term used for a major weakness, or more commonly, a number of weaknesses that brake forward progress on the journey of life. Rather than having one foot on the accelerator, it’s as if the other foot on the brake. No matter how much energy you put into growing forward, something slows you done.

Sometimes it’s easy to see, as in the case of hubris and arrogance. Hubris is defined as an excessive amount of pride or self-confidence; while arrogance is overbearing pride, an offensive display of superiority or self-importance. You might say both of these thrive among extremely selfish narcissistic individuals.

But many times, the flaw is hidden and difficult to discover. For example, in the syndrome known as the fear of success, the person sabotages their own career progression in subtle and not so subtle ways.  Let’s say one desires a high political office, but secretly believes they are not ready or deserving. So the person throws away the opportunity by making a series of political gaffs that gives the election to the opponent. Don’t laugh, it happens.

If only the fatal flaw was just an anger problem, a listening issue, or a coachability deficit. But most of the time there are many small things, all of which contribute to careers derailed or businesses lost.

Thetis_Immerses_Son_Achilles_in_Water_of_River_Styx_by_Antoine_Borel
Antoine Borel (1743-1810): Thetis Immerses Son Achilles in Water of River Styx. While Thetis was able to make her son invulnerable to physical harm, she unfortunately held on too tightly onto her son’s Achilles’s Heel to have the water fully cover it. Ultimately, it was the part of the Hero’s body struck by a poisoned arrow and so he died.

Do not be deluded, a high IQ does not make you immune to character flaws that can crater a career or destroy a business. Do not think that just because you are a graduate of the university and have a Ph. D, a masters or a bachelors, that a “Fatal Flaw” might not exist.

Sometimes called the Tragic Flaw, it has long been a part of human nature; captured in literature, myth, and movies. We also see this today when people get fired due to problems they didn’t know they had. Or in a true tragic flaw, they knew they had problems, but failed to do anything about it.

I actually saw this happen. A brilliant programmer unwisely took a step up into management. Bad people skills combined with a big dose of passive-aggressive personality led to him leaving the company, despite the organization giving him six months of coaching.

The Fatal Flaw is a term used for a major weakness, or more commonly, a number of weaknesses that brake forward progress on the journey of life. Rather than having one foot on the accelerator, it’s as if the other foot on the brake. No matter how much energy you put into growing forward, something slows you done.

Sometimes it’s easy to see, as in the case of hubris and arrogance. Hubris is defined as an excessive amount of pride or self-confidence; while arrogance is overbearing pride, an offensive display of superiority or self-importance. You might say both of these thrive among extremely selfish, narcissistic individuals.

YoshiOldwoman
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi; “Gravemarker Moon” – The famous poetess Ono no Komachi meditates on the arrogance and heartlessness she displayed to her suitors as a young beauty.

 

But many times, the flaw is hidden and difficult to discover. Still these must be found and changed. For example, in the syndrome known as the fear of success, the person sabotages their own career progression in subtle and not so subtle ways.  Let’s say one desires a high political office, but secretly believes they are not ready or deserving. So the person throws away the opportunity by making a series of political gaffs that gives the election to the opponent. Don’t laugh, it happens.

If only the fatal flaw was just an anger problem, a listening issue, or a coachability deficit. But most of the time there are many small things, all of which contribute to careers derailed or businesses lost. 

 

An Allegory on Changing the Mind

 

“Criticizing another’s garden doesn’t keep the weeds out of your own.” —Unknown Author

 

You might say your mind could be like a garden—a wonderful place where beautiful things could grow.

 

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First Atrium of Santa Paula Convent Seville by Museo Carmen Thyssen

 

But faults are the weeds the in the garden out the mind, they obscure the beauty waiting to be revealed.

 

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Thistles and Weeds Léon Bonvin (1834–1866)

 

For the vast majority of people, their mind is more like a swamp, a jungle and wilderness. The weeds have grown over the years, seeded by trauma, harmful states of minds, negative emotions, and delusional beliefs. Ignoring these weeds crowds out the flowers. And if you continue to engage in willful blindness, you have nothing of beauty.

 

Finding your flaws is like acting as a gardener who keeps pulling out weeds engages in planting flowers of flowers such as the virtues, positive states, empowering beliefs and though effort transforms wilderness into something beautiful.  

 

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Manuel Garcia y Rodriguez (1863-1925)

 

It requires daily action to make these types of fundamental changes. You won’t finish in a week, in a month or even in a year. You may never finish—but you need to try.

 

Wrap-up

“The beginning is the most important part of any work.” — Plato

 Sooner or later, everyone faces a fundamental truth — that to achieve success in business, one must work on their weaknesses.

References and Resources

 

Gentry, W. A. and Chappelow, C. T. (2009) Managerial derailment – weaknesses that can be fixed. In Kaiser, R. B. (Ed.), The perils of accentuating the positive. Tulsa, OK: HoganPress, 97-113.

Goins, Jeff (N.D.) Heroes and Their Tragic Flaws: Achilles to Bethany Hilton.

Hawers, Daniel and Grazioplen, Rachael (2010). When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect. Psychology Today, June 6.

Hope, Jack (1966). The Better Mousetrap. American Heritage Magazine, 47:6

Johannsen, Murray (2014). For A Change. Available exclusively on Apple for iBooks and iPads

Katz, Jerome & Green, Richard (2010). Entrepreneurial Small Business. McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Kloeffler, Dan (2012). Golden Parachutes: 21 CEOs Landed $100M Plus. ABC News, January 27.

Mariotti, Steve & Glackin, Caroline (2010). Entrepreneurship, 2nd Edition, Prentice-Hall.

Peters, Lawrence & Hull, Raymond (1996). The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, Buccaneer Books.

Robb, Alicia & Farhat (2013). An Overview of the Kauffman Firm Survey, The Kauffman Foundation.

Small Business Administration, Office of Advocacy (ND). Frequently Asked Questions. www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/sbfaq.pdf

Timmons, Jeffry and Spinelli, Stephen (2008). New Venture Creation: Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century, McGraw-Hill Irwin

Wan, Khoo Ee and Tham, Caithlin (2010). Understanding Managerial Derailment.  Singapore Civil Service College.

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