As far as we know, the first person to be referred to as a thought-leader was Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1876. In the Oxford dictionary thought leadership is defined as “the practice of developing important new ways of thinking that influence others” and is seen to be a key force in progress. Therefore, in a field such as entrepreneurship, which relies on perpetually moving forward, rigorous thought leadership plays a key role. Yet I argue in this piece that such rigorous thought leadership is severely lacking in the entrepreneurship domain.
Today’s Thought Leaders: “Real Food for Thought”
When we think about thought leaders for startups and entrepreneurship some of the names, among others, that come to mind are people like Marc Andreessen (co-founder of Netscape and co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz), Paul Graham (co-founder of the first startup accelerator Y Combinator), Steve Blank (entrepreneur and lean startup guru), Sam Altman (ex-President and now Chairman of Y Combinator. All of these “thought leaders” have huge followings on social media, large readership for their blogs and a lot of young, and not so young, entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs hanging on their every word. And this is where many of the problems begin. Because a lot of what they write and say is really poor advice and best ignored.
For instance, Sam Altman wrote a blog post entitled “Super Successful Companies”. It has been read around 138,000 times to date and the biggest problem with the post is that the methodology he used is completely flawed. He examined a couple of really successful start-ups and from this extrapolated a list of what makes startups successful. The only problem is that if you look at really successful... anything and try to extrapolate appropriate behaviors, then what you are doing is falling for survival bias. All in all, we do not know if unsuccessful startups also did the same things because Sam did not look at them; he only looked at successful startups. If it had been a simple one-off “exercise”, we could have easily said “OK, not a big deal” but it is not. His most recent post is along the same lines. He gave his article the somewhat grand and pretentious title: “How to be Successful”. In it, he talks about lessons learned from observing “thousands of founders”. This post has been read 399,000 times and is based on the same flawed methodology as before
Or what about Paul Graham? He once wrote a blog post about mean people always failing. I have no figures available for how many times this blog post has been read but I would surmise that it has been read at least as much as Sam Altman’s post. And how did Paul Graham come to his conclusion? If I were to quote him directly, “And yet while there are clearly a lot of mean people out there, there are next to none among the most successful people I know. What's going on here? Are meanness and success inversely correlated?”
It does not take a genius to realize that all this means is that Paul Graham does not have mean friends who are successful and that absolutely nothing else can be extrapolated from that. Yet Paul goes on to make sweeping generalizations about correlations between being nice and being successful. Without naming names, I am sure all of us can think of at least one successful person who is not particularly nice and of many unsuccessful people who are awfully nice.
3 Bad Habits, 21 Tips, 5 Ways, 10 Reasons Why…: Titles are King
If we look at the popular business press and media, contrary to our expectations, the landscape does not change much. CNBC recently published an article about 3 bad habits that Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Cuban quit before they became successful. I guess it might be somewhat interesting to know that Bill Gates used to be a procrastinator, Elon Musk used to consume a lot of caffeine, while Mark Cuban shouted at people a lot. But of course, the implication here is that if you, as an individual, stop doing these things, then you too have a better shot at being successful. I guess that will be news to all the caffeine consuming, shouty, procrastinating successful people out there. And also news to all the non-caffeine consuming, non-procrastinating, non-shouty unsuccessful people out there.
Moving Towards Meaningful Content
So what should the methodology be? It is very simple. If we want to avoid making biased conclusions and start providing rigorous thought leadership, then it is important to actually engage in rigorous research, to begin with. Instead of looking at successful entrepreneurs and startups and seeing what they have in common, we better start looking at a sample of successful and non-successful startups and entrepreneurs. Are nice people more successful than mean people? To find this out we should take a random sample of startups and look at the founders and rate them on their meanness and niceness. Then and only then we could test to see if there is any correlation between niceness and success. However, even this would not allow us to make the statement that only nice people are successful as correlation and causation are not the same thing, but it would allow us to make some tentative conclusions in this regard.
So why does this matter? Well, these individuals that I have mentioned are the thought leaders in entrepreneurship and the advice that they dole out is lapped up by many and taken onboard. But in reality and in practice, we do not even know if it is worth anything. If we truly want to encourage entrepreneurs and give them guidance as to how to be successful, then it is fundamental that the thought leadership we provide is rigorous as otherwise we are playing with people’s lives and providing false hope as a result of our poor methodology. And this is a problem.
 "The Theistic Annual for 1876". 1876. p. 38. Retrieved 15.04.2019