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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…