Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
From Ford to Musk, the image of the successful entrepreneur has often been intertwined with a set of traditional ideals: unyielding confidence, unwavering determination and an unrelenting pursuit of success. Those characteristics of excellence have shaped our perception of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur for generations. They also connect with larger social and political ideas of greatness: winning through domination in some form.
However, a generational shift in the definition of excellence is becoming all too apparent as the once-unquestionable benchmarks of success, such as wealth, fame and power, have begun to coexist with qualities that transcend the headlines — qualities like personal growth, empathy and a commitment to lasting values. Additionally, an increasing number of successful female entrepreneurs are also calling into question masculine gatekeeping of definitions of entrepreneurial excellence. Numerous social pressures, along with rapid technological change, are causing many of us to contemplate what it actually means to pursue “excellence” or “greatness” today.
Somewhere on the other side of Elon and Zuckerberg’s proposed MMA fight is another view of what being great can be for an entrepreneur. A more encompassing view of excellence may be necessary, one which redefines not only the characteristics of greatness but also the obligations and behaviors of those we deem role models within the world of business. Excellence is no longer solely about conquering frontiers or amassing fortunes; it’s about leaving a positive mark on the world, fostering innovation with ethics, and making decisions that resonate through generations. That excellence can be achieved by adding elements of stoicism and empathy to our entrepreneurial mindsets and leadership approaches.
The biography of excellence
The historical record provides as many definitions of excellence as it does role models to learn from. Different eras have birthed distinct ideals of greatness, often mirroring the predominant societal norms and values. In the Renaissance, excellence was defined by creativity; in the Enlightenment, it was rationality. Excellence in political leadership was defined in many eras as the ability to win wars and defeat foes. Yet even some of the greatest warriors held up as role models of excellence, such as Leonidas’s Spartans at Thermopylae or Saigō Takamori’s Samurai at the Battle of Shiroyama, proved their merit through their defeat by holding fast to their values in the face of certain loss. Excellence, it seems, becomes a complex issue when one combines the morality of strong values with societal markers like wealth, fame, power or might.
The realm of entrepreneurialism, especially the tech field, has yielded its own vision of excellence. Innovation, creativity, self-discipline and drive are elevated, and entrepreneurs strive to emulate in the hopes of capturing their magic in a bottle. While their accomplishments are undeniable, the criteria by which we measure excellence are evolving, inviting us to reassess the values that truly define greatness. And while many great entrepreneurs stand out as examples of excellence, none better exemplify the increasingly problematic double-edged sword of entrepreneurial excellence than Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.
As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk hits our shelves, it’s an interesting moment to reflect on the nature of excellence as entrepreneurs and beyond — though, for many of us, the question of excellence has long been on our minds. Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, epitomizes the charismatic and audacious archetype of excellence. His boldness and willingness to disrupt industries have yielded transformative results, yet his leadership style is marked by demanding expectations, public spats, and a sometimes controversial presence on social media.
Biographer Isaacson — already skilled at getting to the core of powerhouse egos in his earlier works on Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs — paints Elon Musk as a complex character, at times relatable and at times almost alien in mindset. Similarly, each of Isaacson’s subjects represented ideas of excellence for their times — and beyond — yet each also struggled with a titanic-sized ego and disjointed relationships. Elon seems no different. Excellence, too often, it appears, comes at a steep social price.
Many may liken Musk to Steve Jobs, another tech leader held up as an example of entrepreneurial and technological excellence. Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, responsible for much of the company’s product vision and innovation, is celebrated for revolutionizing personal technology. But his inability to relate to others was as legendary as his vision. His “reality distortion field” and uncompromising pursuit of perfection yielded groundbreaking products, but his interpersonal relationships and management methods were often called into question. Jobs is an extreme personality and example, but often excellence is equated with such extreme focus and vision.
A kinder approach to excellence
While the achievements of Jobs and Musk are undeniable, the emphasis on such figures as entrepreneurial role models perpetuates an image of excellence defined by brashness, bombastic and all-consuming individualism. But as younger generations search for relevant role models of greatness, they seek to redefine how the trait manifests in society. Excellence in this context is not confined to the individual’s achievements but also extends to their contributions to the greater good. Leaders who recognize the strength of collaboration, who consider the impact of their decisions on diverse communities, and who work to bridge societal divides exemplify a new facet of excellence.
Embracing kindness and empathy in leadership fosters collaboration, creativity and sustainable growth in organizations. A leader prioritizing these qualities can inspire loyalty and dedication among employees, creating a more harmonious and productive work environment. Additionally, exercising restraint and thoughtfulness in decision-making prevents hasty actions that might bring short-term gains but lead to detrimental long-term consequences.
The challenge lies in finding a balance between audacity and empathy, innovation and collaboration. While figures like Musk and Jobs have undeniably left their marks on history, it’s worth considering whether their methods could have been refined to include a greater emphasis on building positive relationships and nurturing well-being. Even keel business leaders like Tim Cook or Dara Khosrowshahi will likely never be held up as examples of generational-changing technological or entrepreneurial excellence, even though they may be more worthy of the accolade than their more bombastic peers.
In his 2010 Commencement Speech at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recounted some wisdom he learned from his grandfather: “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Indeed, it is far easier to take the low road, forgetting compassion or patience. Can excellence be achieved without overshadowing qualities like kindness, empathy and restraint? Long before we had the concept of personal brands. Mr. Rogers built a persona around the transformative nature of kindness and empathy. With numerous tall tales of kindness on set coupled with extensive anonymous donations to children’s cancer charities, many would consider Keanu Reeves to be a role model of quiet kindness in a Hollywood marked by greed, vanity, and self-promotion. Just as the media industry has managed to elevate some paragons of kindness, so too can the entrepreneurial field embrace those who translate kindness into excellence.
Stoicism over pomp
Another approach to the question of greatness requires us to stop and think about, yes, the Roman Empire — just maybe not every day as some men do, according to the consensus of a hilarious new TikTok trend. The reason why I suggest that we consider the Roman Empire in pursuit of greatness is that many Roman Emporers embraced stoicism — a philosophy underlying entrepreneurial excellence. At its core, stoicism advocates for a rational and disciplined approach to life’s challenges. It emphasizes the cultivation of inner resilience and the acceptance of circumstances beyond one’s control, encouraging a mindset of gratitude rather than negativity.
Stoics believe in focusing on what can be influenced while gracefully acknowledging and enduring what cannot. This philosophy encourages entrepreneurs to navigate the often tumultuous waters of business with a composed and clear-headed demeanor. By embracing stoic principles, entrepreneurs gain a powerful tool for maintaining equilibrium in the face of adversity, allowing them to make calculated decisions and pursue their goals with unwavering determination.
It is easy to find examples of stoic leadership: those driven by a belief that they can rationally advance their values to improve the world. For example, Former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel’s legacy lies in her adept navigation of complex political terrains while upholding her principles, particularly in her fervent support for a united Europe. Her leadership exemplified the potency of diplomacy, restraint and patient persistence, highlighting that enduring change often stems from steadfast dedication rather than impulsive, headline-grabbing maneuvers.
In the realm of tech entrepreneurship, Steve Wozniak’s journey reflects the value of staying grounded even in the face of immense success. His technical prowess and innovation were pivotal in shaping the technological landscape, yet he remained approachable and down-to-earth. Wozniak’s commitment to education and his willingness to share his knowledge exemplifies the importance of giving back to the community that helped foster his success. Like Merkel, Wozniak has prioritized collaboration over grabbing headlines, building bridges rather than burning them.
And, on a final note, if we ever need to look to the Roman Empire to teach us a lesson about greatness, surely it is this: the political leader held up by many through history as the pinnacle of political excellence was a bold and audacious general and emperor who was such a jerk that his friends and colleagues stabbed him to death. Julius Caesar may argue that a little less ego and a bit more kindness and stoicism are a sounder approach to leadership.
In examining these contrasting examples, we can distill lessons that guide future leaders and innovators. By appreciating the achievements of ego-driven innovators like Musk and Jobs while critically evaluating the potential consequences of their approaches, we pave the way for a new generation of leaders who aspire to achieve greatness while also cultivating qualities that enrich the human experience. Not only should we seek out role models of excellence driven by compassion and empathy, but we should seek to lead our own organizations with the same stoic and caring attitude, fostering excellence in ourselves and those we lead.
Ultimately, excellence should not be narrowly defined by the disruption of industries alone; rather, it should encompass the enhancement of society as a whole, with kindness, empathy and restraint being integral components of that journey. Kindness and stoicism offer new approaches to modern entrepreneurial excellence.
The narrative of excellence is being rewritten to include leaders who strive not just for personal greatness but also for the betterment of humanity. The unassuming acts of kindness, the quiet moments of empathy, and the decisions rooted in restraint are forging a new path for the concept of excellence. This evolution challenges us to evaluate the qualities that truly define greatness and to acknowledge that true excellence is as much about how we treat others as it is about what we achieve.