WCAGLS: Len Schlesinger – Action Trumps Everything

Len Schlesinger is currently the president of Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts. Before his work with Babson, he spent 20 years teaching as a professor at the Harvard Business School. Schlesinger is also the author of many books on the subject of organizational leadership.

Schlesinger’s talk at the summit was titled, “Action Trumps Everything,” which also happens to be the title of a recent book he co-authored with Charles F. Kiefer and Paul B. Brown. I felt like Schlesinger’s talk was structured in a way that moved from a very broad visionary point-of-view to the nitty-gritty of entrepreneurship. I’ve structured my notes to try to capture the structure of his presentation.

Visionary Entrepreneurship

Schlesinger began his talk by referencing a presentation Bill Hybels gave at the previous year’s Global Leadership Summit. Hybels spoke on, “Getting from Here to There.” Schlesinger explained the gist of the presentation as, “Leaders must come to the realization that when casting a vision, they are trying to convince people to move from where they are comfortable (possibly) to a place they are unsure about.”

At the 2010 summit, Hybels used Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream,” speech to illustrate his point. MLK spent years working and speaking before the Civil Rights movement and his work and speaking began to make a serious impact. Hybels’ point was that to move a group of people from “here” to “there” a leader must destroy “here,” convincing people their current situation is unacceptable, before people would be willing to move “there.”

Schlesinger used Hybels’ point to begin to illustrate the need for entrepreneurship. In our current world there are many things that are unacceptable that need to be fixed. So what are we going to do about it? Schlesinger believes, “Entrepreneurship goes a long way in providing for the kind of future we aspire to have.” Entrepreneurs and leaders must figure out how to “delineate a level of unacceptability with the current reality in order to create an alternative future.”

Anyone Can…

After setting the stage and showing the need for serious entrepreneurship, Schlesinger began to tear down the idea that to be a successful entrepreneur you must have a big idea, a genetic inclination toward entrepreneurship, and be willing to take massive risks.

Schlesinger described a time at the beginning of his tenure as President of Babson University where he was travelling outside of the United States. One night on the trip he couldn’t sleep, so he turned on the TV and began watching one of the two English language channels available (Bloomberg). During the two or three hours he spent watching the channel he saw a profile of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. After watching the three profiles, he was struck with the thought, “No wonder most people believe you must be superhuman to be a successful entrepreneur.”

The truth is the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs do not look like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates. They also usually don’t look like the depictions you read in entrepreneurial magazines or books. Schlesinger’s research indicates the character traits most of us believe are the traits of successful entrepreneurs are completely wrong. Most successful entrepreneurs are risk averse, do not start with big ideas, distrust reports that claim to predict the future, and do not always create “original” businesses.

Schlesinger says anyone can learn to become an entrepreneur. “Entrepreneurship is something that is learned, not something that you have to be born with to be successful.”

…Be an Entrepreneur

We are all entrepreneurs; only too few of us get to practice it. – Muhammad Yunus

Action Trumps Everything

Schlesinger said, “The only thing required for a person to know in order to become a successful entrepreneur is, in the face of uncertainty, act.” Schlesinger stated that the future is always uncertain. A great line from the conference is, “The future is not a linear extrapolation of the past.” Meaning, we cannot trust the future to unfold in the same way it unfolded in the past. Therefore, if you can’t predict the future, create it.

Schlesinger’s point of course is the title of his presentation, “Action trumps everything.” In the face of uncertainty, acting comes with a certain amount of risk. But, risk can be quantified, uncertainty cannot. “Don’t allow uncertainty to paralyze you. Work within the parameters of risk, not uncertainty,” says Schlesinger.

To prove his point Schlesinger walked the audience at the summit through an exercise. He asked everyone to imagine they were trapped in a dark hole where nothing could be seen. Then he asked, “In the face of unknowability (a dark hole), what would rational thinking and acting look like?” Rational thinking, said Schlesinger, might look like taking careful, small steps or checking pockets and belts for anything that could be useful (flashlight, knife). “What’s the point of sitting and thinking?” Schlesinger asked. Sitting and thinking will take you nowhere.

Schlesinger’s Rules of Acting:

  1. Take small steps with what you have at hand.
  2.  Limit the risk for each step.
  3. Ensure you are stepping on firm ground (reality).
  4. Build off what you find from taking the step.
  5. Try to have friends and resources at hand to help in taking the steps.

So Now What?

After hammering home the point that to do anything, a person must do something, Schlesinger moved on to specific tips and “rules” of entrepreneurship.

To be an entrepreneur:

  1. Start with what you care about. Do what you want to do, or do what will get you what you want. Always think about what you will do next.
  2. Do not look at the expected return (uncertainty), look at the acceptable loss (risk). Decide what you are willing to spend. Stop obsessing about what you need, use what you have.
  3. Do not fear failure when taking steps. Failure doesn’t mean game over, it means try again with experience. If you take a step, and it doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, you have probably learned something that no one else knows. If you’re uncomfortable with failure, try looking at it as learning something that nobody else knows.
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