There’s a bad habit in the social entrepreneurship world where we put outstanding social entrepreneurs up on a pedestal — these incredible demigods who have accomplished something us mere mortals can only dream of. We see it when leading fellowships and incubators raise up the selected few above the passionate — but unpolished — masses. And we, as a result, think that these accomplished social entrepreneurs have something inherent in them, some trait, some skill, some knowledge that separates them from everyone else.
And since their achievements often seems so out of reach, we hope that there is some trick or tool we could learn which would be the secret key to unlocking the treasure chest of social entrepreneurial greatness. Is it the business model canvas? An impact measurement framework? A networking miracle?
I have some good news and some bad news.
Here’s the bad news: there is no single tool to learn. No approach to master. No hidden treasure that all great social entrepreneurs have that would make you a star too, if you only had that key.
The good news? It’s all about having the right mindset, which enables and empowers one to accomplish great things. And this mindset is accessible to anyone and everyone.
From my time coaching, advising and supporting social entrepreneurs around the world, I’ve come to believe that there are three things great social entrepreneurs have in common. Rather than being specific skills to gain, these characteristics are the underlying values and approaches that enable one to learn all the myriad — and unpredictable — skills and knowledge one will need to acquire. These are the infrastructure that make everything else possible.
And unlike a tool or framework, these are attitudes that you, uniquely, can choose to adopt right now. There’s nothing standing in the way of you beginning to demonstrate these approaches, besides your own desire to do so. So let’s get into them!
1. A Learning Mindset
It’s the startup version of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset,’ in which one “thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching existing abilities.”
If there’s one thing that’s for sure in running a social venture, it’s that you will fail. Constantly. The best social entrepreneurs are those who view their failures as something to be embraced — rather than feared — and use their learnings to ‘fail forward.’
I’ve written in the past about how crucial it is for social entrepreneurs to make time to reflect and to learn — but these routines don’t make much difference if the learning mindset is not there.
If we instead embrace Eric Ries’ conception of a startup: learning as much as possible as quickly as possible, we see everything we do as an opportunity to learn. The stigma disappears from a mistake or an error (which are inevitable anyway), replaced by a continual desire to learn and improve each day.
2. Trust in Oneself
Let’s begin with the synonyms for ‘self trust’, which this is not: cockiness, conceitedness, egoism or self-importance. Rather it’s a quiet confidence in one’s abilities to take on whatever may come.
When one starts a social venture, the only certainty is that it will not go exactly as planned. There will be hurdles to overcome, new challenges that pop-up and an incredible array of things you never realised you didn’t know until it’s too late.
When I co-founded StartSomeGood I had no idea that just to get through the first month I would need to learn bookkeeping, how to form an LLC, how to overlay text over an image in photoshop and how to run a developer brainstorming session.
Actually that may have just been the first week.
I struggled a lot in trying to learn all of those things — all while feeling bad about myself that I, seemingly, wasn’t learning it all as quickly as I thought I should. It was only after a couple of years that I realized that my team and I could solve nearly any problem that came our way — but that it was impossible to do if we didn’t have trust in ourselves that we actually could.
This mindset made all the difference — instead of fearing the unknown, we developed trust that we could handle whatever challenge might be next.
One of the most important characteristics I look for when considering investing in an entrepreneur is their humility: being open to other opinions, admitting mistakes, self-reflection and recognising they cannot do everything themselves.
Humility is one of the key traits that Jim Collins argues in ‘Good to Great’ that the very best ‘level 5’ leaders have. It’s the ability to accept blame (even when it isn’t meant for you), and to share praise (even when it is meant for you).
On an individual level it means self-awareness and a desire to serve others — two mutually reinforcing traits of great social entrepreneurs. On a team level it means empowering others. I used to think that the measure of my leadership was how many decisions I could be part of; now I measure myself on how many decisions my team can take without me. It means electing to trust others instead of micromanaging, and to trust that one can go further together than alone.
Why You Need All Three
It’s not enough to only develop two out of the three. These approaches are not independent but rather interdependent: development in one spurs development in the others. Look at what happens if you focus on one or two at the expense of the others:
- A learning mindset without trust in oneself: you’ll have a better idea of what to do, but no courage to actually do it.
- A learning mindset without humility: you’ll only learn from successes, not from failure or disappointment.
- Trust in oneself without a learning mindset: you’ll simply follow your own intuition, and when your gut instinct lets you down, you’ll have nowhere to turn.
- Trust in oneself without humility: you’ll overvalue your own thoughts, ideas and contributions and will try to do everything yourself.
- Humility without a learning mindset: you’ll never step into your zone of impact.
- Humility without trusting oneself: you’ll be subject to other’s thoughts and opinions, always going wherever others take you.
While it may have initially felt like bad news that there is no single skill to master or trick to learn to become a great social entrepreneur, it’s actually a positive that these three traits are accessible to everyone. It means that the right mindset is within anyone’s grasp. And through embracing these traits, you will accomplish amazing things.
Alex Budak helps social entrepreneurs launch, run and scale their organizations. Originally from California, he currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden where he leads Reach for Change’s incubator for Swedish social entrepreneurs. He previously co-founded StartSomeGood.com. He frequently speaks on the topics of changemaking and leadership around the world, from LA to the Artic Circle; Ukraine to the White House. For more check out his Personal Site or follow him on Twitter, @alexbudak.