A Leader’s Superpower and Their Achilles’ Heel?

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The way entrepreneurs answer the question “Who am I?”—that is, their corporate identity, or EI—plays an important role in how they think and act, from starting new businesses to harvesting them.1 For example, how they define their background, purpose, and values ​​as a founder, the type and amount of resources they gather, the structure and goals of their business, and even their propensity to persevere (or not) in the face of it can to affect misfortune.

Extrapolated from our recent review of existing ones EI literature and our own ongoing work in this area, we suggest that it is important for organizational leaders, from small and large organizations alike, to assess and refresh the way in which they can identify as entrepreneurs at every stage of their business . In doing so, we aim to help leaders reconcile their entrepreneurial identity with the challenges they might face at different points in the life of their organizations and to understand how their EI can impact the way they grow and their business want to develop.

For early-stage organization: Take stock of who you are

In the early stages of an organization’s life, when defining teams, processes, products or services, EI fulfills the dual role of motivator and grounding resource. Because many begin their ventures with a desire to express who they are, entrepreneurs are particularly early in making decisions that are consistent with their EI. These decisions include product and service design, business location, hiring, and more.

For example, a study by Entrepreneur in the sporting goods industry suggests that the way entrepreneurs view themselves influences how they source resources, including who they hire, what resources they pursue, and even their target market. The founder of a young digital media company told us about the central role corporate identity plays in his hiring decisions: “When we hire someone, it’s not just about their skills – it’s also about who they are and how that aligns with who they are what we are becoming as an organization.” Our conversations with social entrepreneurs suggest a similar dynamic: many of these founders create their organizations to channel their identities and values, such as pursuing pro-social goals. Think of Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farms. An educator and believer in sustainability and organic food production, he founded Stonyfield as a way to fund his sustainable farming efforts and those of his partners.

In this way, corporate identity sets individuals in motion and anchors their strategic decisions and organizational efforts. To the extent that leaders can uniquely express their identity through their work, their EI could not only motivate them but also serve as a source of differentiation.

To use their EI as a source of motivation and differentiation, leaders should first take stock of who they are. First, this might mean identifying the roles they play and the groups they belong to, which they see as core to themselves, and mobilizing their efforts and resources in ways that honor such self-defined categories. To illustrate, a leader who sees their role as a parent as self-defining may find it particularly motivating to be involved in the design and implementation of work policies to support other working parents.

Of course, this process of evaluating one’s EI should continue as organizations evolve: it is critical that leaders understand how their EI can impact their organization’s evolution beyond the early stages.

For the growing organization: Embrace identity shifts

As organizations grow, EI can become a burden that contributes to rigid thinking and ultimately an inability to adapt to new challenges. This can happen when a specific role or group becomes so Self-definition that entrepreneurs are unable to assume other roles and therefore cannot adapt their behavior to the evolving needs of their organizations. Rather, they remain “stuck” in old ways of seeing and acting that no longer fit into their respective context.

For example, if an entrepreneur identifies solely with the role of an inventor, he could inadvertently focus the lion’s share of his time and effort on R&D and possibly neglect other important organizational tasks such as fundraising or team building. Similarly, entrepreneurs who see themselves as owners and managers of family businesses, or as experts in their craft rather than business experts, may resist raising or expanding funds, potentially slowing or stymiing the growth of their business.

In contrast, search suggestions that founders who flexibly and dynamically let go of some of their self-defined roles and remain open to new roles can positively influence the growth of their companies.

To be more attentive and caring to the needs of their growing organizations, leaders should regularly assess how important a role or group is to themselves and recognize that when a particular role or group becomes omnipotent, there is a risk of losing perspective. Regular self-monitoring, including talking to others — including family or friends — can help reduce this risk.

For the incumbent organization: Reprioritize what is core to what you are

It’s inevitable that companies will encounter setbacks at some point, and many may plateau rather than continue on their growth trajectory. EI can help combat stagnant growth and serve as a source of renewal and resilience. In particular, research shows that some entrepreneurs find energy and continuity when their businesses face challenges by holding on to parts of their identities while letting others go to adapt to changing conditions in their environment.

For example, a study by resource-constrained organizations in the textile industry showed that the way founders managed the survival of their business—whether through experimentation, by mobilizing to sustain their ventures, or by downsizing—is closely related to the evolution of their EI. Similarly, a financial industry entrepreneur recently told us, “You can’t get too attached to one thing. If something in your business becomes what you are, if things don’t work, you’re dead. You have to stay flexible.” The generative power of this flexibility is illustrated by a number of entrepreneurs emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic swung around. By holding on to what was important to them as an organization while letting go of their specific role, many shifted their companies’ offerings. For example, Rafi Nova, a travel accessories company, doubled down on its socially responsible identity by making masks available to teachers and other essential workers at a discounted rate while temporarily shifting its primary role from travel accessories maker to masks.

When organizations are challenged by adverse environmental conditions, whether from competitive threats, crises, or industry downturns, leaders may consider rethinking who they are by choosing a different role or group as the primary basis for self-definition. For example, a leader may decide to redefine themselves as the leader of a particular work group or as a member of a particular profession or profession, e.g. B. as an engineer or architect. As this process of defining themselves in different ways opens up new ways of looking at and acting, it is likely that leaders will come out of a tight spot and help themselves and their organizations move forward in new ways.

By continuing to reassess their corporate identity – What makes her tick whyand how — Leaders can harness the generative power of EI as a source of motivation, perseverance and innovation. This ongoing introspective process can also help leaders decide when it’s time to hire others to help them run their organization. after all, EI is both your superpower and your Achilles’ heel.


1. We use “entrepreneur” and “founder” interchangeably.

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