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Are You a REAL Entrepreneur?

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In Real Leaders Don't Follow, author Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak describes the four outstanding traits of true entrepreneurs.

While there's no one-size-fits-all model for real entrepreneurs, there are a number of common themes. It’s not a laundry list of attributes or qualities, but more about their behavior and motivation. What makes them unique is what they do and, just as important, what they don’t do. Becoming a real entrepreneur is certainly not preordained, but it’s not a cakewalk either. The following traits, in my experience, are what sets real entrepreneurs apart from the crowd.

1. They are driven by passion.

Passion is the primary source of all the behaviors that make entrepreneurs successful. Their passion for their work is at their very core. It’s what motivates and inspires them. It’s what sets them apart.

That’s what makes finding what you love to do, what makes you obsessive and crazed with excitement, so critical to becoming a successful entrepreneur. It’s what drives you to work 24/7 and not give a crap that the rest of your life has gone to hell. It’s what keeps you going when everyone says you’re nuts. It’s what occupies your mind every waking moment and keeps you hungry and focused on accomplishing that one thing.

Steve Jobs was a card-carrying control freak, a maniacal micromanager who could never pay too much attention to the details of the companies and products he built. Had he been any other way, Apple would not be Apple today. Neither would Pixar be Pixar. Nearly every great entrepreneur I can think of -- Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, and a laundry list of those less famous -- were all passionate about their work.

If you find that you’re always in need of motivation and inspiration, all that means is you haven’t found what you love doing yet. Keep looking. Keep the faith. You’ll find it.

2. They don't let anything stand in their way.

Real entrepreneurs never think about work-life balance. They don’t do a little of this and a little of that. They don’t do things in half measures. When they hit on something they think is really cool and exciting, they go all in. They don’t just dip their toes in the water. They jump in headfirst without a moment’s thought about the rocks below. They’re mostly workaholics because their work comes first. It’s what they live for. They’re not freewheeling, fun-loving people who live for the weekend. They live to do what they love, and that’s work. While everyone else complains about how much they have to work, successful entrepreneurs usually have to be pried away from it.

They don’t take risks for the sake of taking risks. They just don’t let anything stand in the way of what drives them. Risk just comes with the territory. So does facing fear. Great entrepreneurs often appear to be fearless, but that’s certainly not the case. They feel fear just like you and me -- they just don’t let it stop them from accomplishing what they set out to do. They don’t succumb to those voices in their heads -- the ones that taunt you with everything that can go wrong. Their motivation, their passion, is simply strong enough to overcome their fear. Or maybe they just don’t think about it.

3. They're on a "mission from God."

When Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues said, “We’re on a mission from God” with that deadpan delivery, you knew that nothing was going to stop the Blues Brothers from getting the band back together. Not a bunch of angry Winnebago-driving hillbillies with shotguns, Aretha Franklin as Matt Guitar Murphy’s pissed-off wife, a high-speed car chase through a shopping mall, or what appeared to be the entire Chicago police force.

Great entrepreneurs also often seem to be on a mission from God. When they speak about their vision or idea, you’d swear they’ve been possessed by some sort of demon that, instead of inciting chaos and mischief, inspires innovation and creation. There’s definitely an aspect of fanaticism in their zeal for whatever has captured their imagination. And it’s often fueled by an unnatural belief that they’re special, an aspect that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his seminal book Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, five of Warren Bennis’ 15 lessons of what he calls “Great Groups” are that they “see themselves as winning underdogs,” “always have an enemy,” “have blinders on,” always have “a strong leader,” and “think they are on a mission from God.” One of the groups profiled in the book is Apple’s first Macintosh design team, which Steve Jobs famously told their purpose was to “make a dent in the universe.” And they did.

4. They follow no one.

When you work with successful entrepreneurs on a daily basis, you begin to wonder what it takes to influence them. They always seem to march to the beat of a drum only they can hear -- they follow no one.

To them, there's no such thing as conventional wisdom. They have no patience for the status quo. Tell them how things are done, have been done, or should be done, and you’re likely to receive an intimidating stare or be summarily written off as a lost cause.

They have no interest in what anyone else says or does. The word popular has no meaning to them. They’re indifferent to social conventions and societal norms. They don’t have personal brands, and they don’t try to be what they’re not. They’re true to themselves and comfortable in their own skin. Dealing with them is relatively simple and straightforward: What you see is what you get.

They strongly identify with their passion, their company, and their products. And when it comes to anything related to their work, they have their own methods, their own way of doing things.

They're generally business-savvy, quick on the uptake, and born troubleshooters and problem solvers. They’re not particularly patient, don’t mince words, and don’t typically suffer fools lightly. They're confident and competent. They are decision makers, not consensus builders. They listen to others, but in the end, they only trust their own gut.

True entrepreneurs carve their own unique path. They’re the makers of their own destiny. And they shape the world we live in.

Entrepreneurship has nothing to do with beliefs or even traits -- it’s entirely about behavior. It’s about starting a business and risking loss to make money. It’s about organizing and managing a company with real products, customers, and employees. And until you accomplish that, it’s a good idea to lose the labels and get to work.

If these four traits don’t fit you perfectly, don’t panic. It doesn’t mean you can’t own a franchise or two, a dry-cleaning business, or a restaurant. It doesn’t mean you can’t be self-employed or a small-business owner. But if you want to do great things, if you want to be a real entrepreneur who starts, runs, and grows a successful, thriving business, you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you.