Make More Happen

How Inspiration From Leo Tolstoy Can Drive Your Business

  • ---Shares
Reader Resource

Join us Dec 20. for our free webinar on attracting top talent, fueling productivity and building a brag-worthy culture. Register Now »

Leo Tolstoy, the celebrated Russian novelist and essayist, born on this day in 1828, is rarely cited for his entrepreneurial wisdom. More in tune with Schopenhauer than Zig Ziglar, he followed Georgist economic thought, with its public ownership of property, and embraced ascetiscism. Needless to say, he would have been a downer at a hackathon.

But Tolstoy, without ever knowing it, nailed some of the best inspirational advice for the entrepreneurial crowd. 

"The strongest of all warriors are these two -- time and patience." Tolstoy's context, of course, was war, in his seminal War and Peace, but you could easily apply this advice to business. How often have we heard that it takes a decade to be an overnight success? One of the flaws of many startup CEOs is that they are impatient. They push out products that aren't ready. They go into easy markets, neglecting more lucrative ones. They don't commit the time necessary to assess their business and help it grow. Time and patience always win.

"A battle is won by him who is firmly resolved to win it." Sticking with a martial theme, it is true that many battles come down not to skill nor to planning nor even to luck, but rather to the force of will. Will drives character. Will can push an intransigent team toward thinking or acting differently. Will can overcome challenges. You can have the Harvard MBA, the marquis funding, the best mentors in the world, but if you lack the resolve to actually win, you are doomed to fail.

Related: How a Stroke of Improvisation and Inspiration Saved Europe in WWI

"True life is lived when tiny changes occur." We hear often about big ideas and thinking bigger and hitting home runs in business. But those who have tasted success will always tell you it comes from smaller changes that yielded big results. Tony Robbins gives the great anectode about golf, namely how struck he was in learning that just a millimeter change in his swing could cause such a drastic change in the flight of the ball. Instead of thinking big, sometimes looking for smaller adjustments is the best way to improve your company and its products.

"One must be cunning and wicked in this world." Competition exists, whether the kumbaya startup crowd admits it or not. Business leaders can't be afraid to compete, they can't be ashamed to compete and they always have to play tough. Playing hardball doesn't come naturally to people. We always like to market our company to employees and customers on the strength of our values and social commitments. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't always have our knives at the ready when the rumble starts. Good CEOs compete, but the great ones fight their competitors with cunning and toughness.

"A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction." A wise Jesuit (pardon the redundancy) once told me that great men are diminished once they begin to believe their own press. This is especially true of entrepreneurs. It takes a certain type of ego to lead a company. There is a wonderful belief in yourself and your own value that helps you to innovate and solve problems. But, too often, that morphs into egotism. That is toxic for you, your company and especially your employees and partners.

Related: Leadership, Accountability and the D-Day Letter Ike Never Sent

"I am always with myself, and it is I who am my tormentor." We are judged every day by others. Our customers complain about service. Our boards question the direction we want to take our companies. Our employees want more kale in the salad bar at the cafeteria. Our spouses think we spend too much time at the office. But true entrepreneurs judge themselves more harshly than anyone else. True leadership requires constant questioning of decisions before you make them, analysis of strategies as you carry them out, and evaluation of performance when the work is done. There is nothing wrong with staying up late thinking about how you can do better. That's where the next great ideas come from.

"If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you." Myopia is harmful to any business. Often, entrepreneurs miss a chance to succeed because they fail to see the world around them. Some startups spend millions of dollars on products no one wants to buy, when a simple look at the marketplace would have told them that in the first place. Worse, many entrepreneurs and innovators lose their creativity or inspiration because they don't know how to be still, to breathe, and to allow the grandeur of the world to seep into them emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

"One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to love." I am a firm believer that there can never really be a work-life balance for a business leader. It is the Finding Bigfoot of entrepreneurship -- we make a game of searching for something we know doesn't exist. But that doesn't mean we can't make sure we carve out time for both work and life and love. It will never be balanced, but that doesn't mean we can't devote more time to the people or personal pursuits we truly love.

"If you want to be happy, be." Happiness is in your hands, as is success. Simple as that.

Related: The 7 Management Lessons of Pope Francis