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Nature versus nurture: why no one is born a great entrepreneur

Mr Jonathan Styles, Lecturer in Enterprise, University of Manchester

Nature or nurture – which has the greater influence in the creation of a successful entrepreneur?

This question has long been debated in the field of business. Put simply, the debate divides those who argue that an individual is born with the innate, fundamental traits to be a successful entrepreneur against those who say the necessary skills or methods of working can be developed over time. While few would say it is solely one or the other, there are certainly many who argue that either nature or nurture is of far greater significance than the other.

It is a complex, wide-ranging topic. The discussion begins with the definition of entrepreneurship and then must consider what are typically considered to be the defining characteristics of entrepreneurs. From there, we can assess the relative influence of nature and nurture.

Let’s address those points in turn.

Firstly, there is no unified definition of what an entrepreneur is. Indeed, entire articles could be and have been written on this subject alone. There is one I like, however; Bolton and Thompson (2000) stated that an entrepreneur is “a person who habitually creates and innovates to build something of recognised value around perceived opportunities”.

For the sake of this article we will loosely define entrepreneurship as the activity of setting up and managing a business. Some would add that a key part of the role is taking risks – particularly financial risks – in the hope of achieving profit. At the same time, others would emphasise the importance of innovation, creativity and extracting value from a concept. We will, therefore, consider these additional points, too.

What characteristics typically make a successful entrepreneur?

No doubt most readers have come across – and perhaps read – articles that reveal ‘the one trait that all successful entrepreneurs have in common’. Or maybe it was the top five, or perhaps it was what they eat for breakfast.

Again, we must be careful not to oversimplify the matter. That said, there are certainly some traits that tend to be present in most people who are able to create and manage successful companies. Here are some that stand out to me, but this is by no means a definitive or exhaustive list.

  1. Focus – the ability to zone in on an opportunity and to pursue this relentlessly to a resolution
  2. Advantage – this is the attribute that allows entrepreneurs to select the right opportunity, which includes spotting a gap in the market and assessing the weaknesses of competitors
  3. Risk-taking – a willingness to ‘have a go’, and crucially, accept that the venture might fail
  4. Innovativeness and creativity – being able to conceptualise then create something of value and that is new
  5. Autonomy – wanting control of their destiny
  6. Passion and ego – the individuals will typically believe in what they are doing fervently and have the inner confidence to see their vision through

Adaptability, ambition and a gut feel for business judgements are also often agreed as being important features present among most successful entrepreneurs.

Are these natural abilities?

The list above, one will note, focuses on personality traits and characteristics rather than hard or soft skills. This is often the case within this debate. That is because the more technical skills involved vary so much from business to business; the talents needed to lead an organisation will be determined, in part, by the size and makeup of the team, as well as the industry that the company operates within.

There can be no denying, though, that many of the aforementioned personality traits and characteristics are instilled in people from a young age. And as such, the above list would primarily support the ‘nature’ side of the debate.

However, it is rarely a case of ‘you’ve got it, or you haven’t’. Yes, some people might have personalities and ways of thinking or acting that give them a head start in the field of entrepreneurship. But these things can also be learned.

The same can be said of sports stars or musical prodigies. Some of the brightest names are predisposed to excel, given their work ethic, natural gifts or simply the way their brains are hard-wired. Yet many others are still able to achieve greatness through effort and education.

Some people are instinctively confident; others can build up their inner confidence with the proper support. Some are comfortable leading from the front, while others become comfortable doing so over time and through the necessary tutelage.

Perhaps, then, while we can accept that nature plays an important part in the makeup of a successful entrepreneur, it is not the only factor. It is a starting point, but the journey to become a great business leader is a long one. An individual who does not display the traits outlined in the list above can still reach the same destination – this is because not only can they evolve the characteristics they need, but they can complement this with additional hard and soft skills that will also prove hugely influential.

Developing business acumen

As noted, the debate around nature versus nurture in the creation of entrepreneurs often focuses on terms such as confidence, risk-taking and drive. Yet, there are many people who possess all those traits yet will not be able to run and manage a successful business.

Business acumen is essential, and this must be learnt. One’s formative years will play a role, but people can invest time to learn essential enterprise skills later in life – for example, studying how to effectively research markets and opportunities, will in turn enable them to manage and balance the risks one must take in business. Equally, understanding how to build a solid business plan, keep a company’s finances in order and access capital to grow is all useful knowledge to have.

Confidence and ambition will only carry a person – or their business – so far if not supported by an understanding of how to structure, run and grow a business. Likewise, there are hugely important soft skills, such as presenting ideas to key stakeholders or building relationships with colleagues and partners, which must also be developed over time.

Practical training, coupled with on-the-job experience, are integral components in the creation of successful entrepreneurs. That is why placing excessive emphasis on nature over nurture can be misleading.

As far as we know at this moment, there is no entrepreneurial gene; it is not within a person’s DNA. Like we see in many careers, while some people might possess certain advantageous personality traits or characteristics that will aid them on the road to becoming an entrepreneur, these must be nurtured through training, education and experience. Only then will someone develop the rounded skillsets and perspectives required to launch and grow a successful venture.

Mr Jonathan Styles is a Senior Lecturer in Enterprise at Manchester Enterprise Centre, The Alliance Business School, at The University of Manchester. Mr Styles is part of the team that delivers the University’s online PGCert Entrepreneurship, which allows students to study part-time alongside their working life and learn how to take their business ideas into practice.