Volition and entrepreneurship

Abstract: Jamshetji Tata and Howard Hughes were very rich. But they also went through very difficult periods. At times everything seemed all but lost. What drove them on roads that were uncertain and fraught with huge risks? Was it the desire to grow rich, or their passion? Most entrepreneurs experience failure, sometimes debilitating failure. What keeps the successful ones going? Motivation, or is it something else? The article explores these issues and suggests how successful entrepreneurs create and sustain volitional mindset. Money is a consequence of what they do, not its cause.

First published in Business Gyan, India

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A few weeks ago I saw two excellent films. Zafar Hai’s Keepers of the Flame was a lyrical story of the creation of Tata Group by Jamshetji and its growth under three stalwarts Dorab, JRD and Naval Tata. The Aviator by Martin Scorcese was a romantic rendering of Howard Hughes’s pioneering work in the American aviation industry. Coincidentally both movies were about exceptional entrepreneurs and their work as leaders. Though Jamshetji Tata and Howard Hughes were as different as chalk from cheese, Hughes’s entrepreneurship was as exceptional as late J.N. Tata’s. The films raised a couple of questions in my mind that are relevant for budding entrepreneurs.

> Does money drive entrepreneurs? If not, what does?
> What kept Jamshetji and Hughes going in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds?

Both Jamshetji and Hughes sprang back from the brink of financial ruin at one time or another. Each had powerful opponents. None other than Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India thwarted Jamshetji’s plans for twenty years. Howard Hughes had powerful enemies in the US Senate and PANAM, then a giant US airline, besides others.

Yet, both managed to leave lasting legacies. Hughes contributed significantly to the civil and military aviation industries in USA. Companies Howard Hughes founded have been world leaders in radio communications, satellites and aircraft industries. Jamshetji laid the foundation of India’s steel industry and JRD placed Indian civil aviation on the world map. The Tata group has now grown into one of India’s largest and most successful conglomerates with presence in a large variety of industries and services. Though eventually both men grew very rich, they went through very difficult times at various times during their careers. Knowing what drove them can be useful fuel for people who dream to be successful in business.

Many feel entrepreneurs are driven by the desire to grow rich. Quickly. There is enough evidence to suggest that is furthest from an entrepreneur’s mind. In USA the few promoters who last ten years – less than a fifth of those that start new ventures – make only 65% of the value of the real earnings that they made in their previous employment, including return on the stock they own in their company . Though such data on entrepreneurship in India is unavailable, it is unlikely to be far different. So, why do they start new businesses? Mrs. Anu Aga, former Chairperson of Thermax India, puts it succinctly, “Most entrepreneurs are driven by passion for their work and money is a by product.”

A young friend of mine did not draw a salary from the company he founded for the first three years. Fortunately, his competent and supportive wife held down a good job and kept the cooking fires in the home lit. The entrepreneur’s road is rocky, success uncertain and difficulties often appear insurmountable. If money, the greatest motivator known to man, is not the engine, what is? What drives these people?

Most promoters are convinced their idea of the product or service is better than what is available in the market. They feel strongly it meets an existing need and will make a difference. Some are driven by a cause, or a burning desire to prove something to the family, or the world. A few are spurred by rejection. It increases their resolve to show they can do it. All successful ones have deep faith in their abilities and the potency of their ideas. This determination keeps them going in spite of failure. In all cases they persist; the successful ones do.

Tenacity characterises entrepreneurs but especially great leaders: Edison, Lincoln, Robert Bruce, Gandhi and of course Jamshetji Tata and Howard Hughes. It springs not from motivation but from what Sumantra Ghoshal called volition. The late Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School observed from his research that volitional managers crossed a mental Rubicon and made a commitment to themselves to pursue a course of action. Crossing this point of no return was commitment made from free will. Motivation is created from an external stimulus; volition is the product of free choice. Once made it burns brightly, longer and is difficult to put out.

Volitional people do go through periods of self-doubt. They create their own mechanisms for dealing with it. Some take time out, go away from the office to think it through and refocus. They confront their ambivalence, resolve doubts and renew their commitment. It helps to have wise advice and empathetic support. But it is largely a lonely battle with oneself.

Volition explains why people climb Mount Everest and explore the far reaches of our planet at huge risk of serious injury, even loss of life. It explains why Thomas Alva Edison kept going. One time, a colleague told him that several thousand experiments had been failures. Edison said, “Failures? Not at all. We’ve learned several thousand things that won’t work.” Successful entrepreneurs share this trait. Making money is a fortunate outcome.