Accountability: it is considerably difficult in today’s globalized world to know what the real cost is for the mistakes the individual makes, mistakes most often simply the emergent result of personal biases, whether known or other and the current needs of the individual.
In the startup world, other than the possible failure of your company, there is no real understanding of what the full cost is for making mistakes derived from these same biases and meeting of immediate needs. That is not to state startup teams are not far more aware of the cost of poor decisions than the corporate world or government writ large.
While startups are much like a Special Forces ODA while serving in Special Forces the price for poor or bad decisions is almost always much more obvious, however. This is due to the fact, a mistake while your team is conducting a movement in enemy territory or when engaged in a firefight, will most often lead directly to the death of teammates and attachments if not yourself first, and at times mission failure (which is critical but secondary to the loss of life).
While the members of the Special Forces Regiment are acutely aware of the cost of their mistakes on the battlefield, and while startup teams are more aware than their corporate cousins, at Emerio we often find many startup leaders completely fail to understand the real cost of bad entrepreneurial leadership decisions. There seems to be no recognition of the wealth, and thereby the quality of living for those involved, reduced if not destroyed outright through poor or bad decisions.
This failure to understand, or often, to even know one has failed in a critical personal decision is not completely the fault of the individual but rather seems to be the result of a shift in responsibility in the modern world. In the modern world where no one is really responsible anymore, rather society and external forces are to blame for individual failure. Thereby removing any responsibility from anyone really, excepting those few who are actually trying to do the right thing.
As uncomfortable as it may be to accept, we are living in a time in Western Civilization where, for the most part, no one any longer seems to be responsible for their choices and actions. We’ve come to this state through decades of seeking to include everyone, in the form of establishing academically rigorously defined tribes and sub-tribes, each a minority to be protected and cosseted. Each a political electoral force to be tapped into and thereby supported with all the vigor of government. A great fragmenting of humanity rather than unification.
This state of modern Western Civilization has arisen from three fallacies, as identified by Stephen Pinker in his seminal book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (ISBN: 0-670-03151-8), in which Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, articulates human behavior is substantially, if not almost solely, shaped by evolutionary forces and evolutionary psychological adaptations. At their most basic the three fallacies are defined as the modern world’s acceptance of the following lies:
- The Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits) — empiricism;
- The Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society) — romanticism; and
- The Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology).[i]
The sum result of these three fallacies and all their many convoluted permutations through all aspects of modern Western Civilization is collective insanity. Where the individual can and does see the truth of things right before their very eyes, but are not cognitively allowed to call what is for fear of accepting one or more of the three fallacies as just that, a fallacy. And thereby creating cognitive dissonance and receipt upon the label of bigot of one fashion or another. Making it nearly impossible to make the really hard decisions necessary to mission, startup, success.
There are two arenas remaining, however, in the modern world, in which these three fallacies are seen for exactly what they are, false idols. The first of these is Special Operations, where SOF Operators are out in all corners of the real world, at all times, forced to apply critical and fallacy free thinking in order to survive all the while actively seeking to establish some form of stability out of chaos. The other is actually startups, where even the slightest failure and the unacceptance of this failure’s root cause dramatically impact the success of the venture, often leading to its premature demise. With the best startup founding teams quite well aware of the great fallacies and their ripples in their organization, and who work ceaselessly to balance these fallacy driven decisions so as to prevent failure. This is a herculean task, most startup leaders are not well prepared for.
In Special Forces, when in the team room, many individual fallacies are accepted within each individual on the team. No judgment is made as to who the individual believes they are, regardless of whether anyone else on the team believes the same. Everyone has their own psychological need to see themselves in a certain way, even if there is no real basis for this view of self. However, the moment the team deploys, regardless of the mission, tasking, or environment, all acceptance for anything other than Truth with a capital T are thrown aside and only the cold hard facts of stark reality are allowed. Anything other than this and the team risks losing lives and failing the mission.
While a bit more accepting of individual vision of self, the successful startup is very much like Special Forces, in that holding to illusions of Truth leads to nothing but failure. And when an integral member of the startup team arrives at an error in judgment due to adherence to one or more of the great fallacies fostered upon modern civilization, it often means the end of the organization itself and the destruction of wealth. Which quite literally negatively impacts every life which the venture touches upon. This is not to imply failures in judgment will not happen and cannot be survived. Rather, it means failures in judgment that were based on reality can often be survived, while failures in judgment related to an artificial view of reality cannot.
At its very most basic, this means in the Special Forces and startup worlds it is essential and critical to take personal responsibility for individual beliefs and how personal decisions leading from the same impact the greater whole, either positively or negatively. And while in the world of Special Forces, failure to take personal responsibility for one’s illusions and decisions leading from same often leads to obvious conclusions, namely, failure of mission or, at the extreme, the death of one’s teammates, this failure to think clearly and take personal responsibility is less clear in the startup world.
There are a few tips however the startup world and startup teams could take from the Green Berets (Special Forces) with which to address reality and thereby improve the ultimate chances of success of their respective startup:
Human motivations, individually and collectively, are vastly more complex than any individual can imagine – Life, existence, and the very nature of competition and combat at the heart of all human endeavors and how such play out, are far beyond the individual ability to comprehend. The best can be accomplished, is the team collectively identifies the reality of its competitive space as a composite of individual beliefs tested against the reality of successfully penetrating your market. Meaning, only the battlefield of your market dictates reality, not your refusal to obviate your own biases;
- There are those out there actively and singularly seeking to defeat you – It does not matter how innovative your startup is, how brilliant your team, how unique or complimentary your product and/or service, there are competitors with vastly more resources and relationships, or who are simply more nimble, dedicated to defeating you in what they consider their marketspace. Particularly if your startup is a genuine threat. Not accepting the existence of an enemy means you will lose your market niche and company in an instant, despite the fact you have the superior product and/or service and/or team; which leads to the final tip,
- Success is dependent upon being a critical component of a far greater integrated effort – Only the complexity of deep interdependence, of an ecosystem consisting of thriving vendor-client relationships, is flexible and strong enough to ensure success in the hard times successful navigation of which is the real determinate of success. On the battlefield there is always a tip of the spear, the lead element engaging the enemy, the lead firm in the vendor-client network, working collectively with the many other elements in the network to ensure if not success, then survival of as much of the network as is possible. Each element is independent but dependent.
As startup leadership, be honest and humble and know that every single decision you make either adds to or takes away from the collective body of wealth. Wealth, which once destroyed, is truly destroyed and thereby no longer capable of being employed to the betterment of standards of living for the many individuals and families supported by this wealth. And for those entrepreneurs who have come from Special Forces, Special Operations, and the military as a whole, understand wealth is not an endless supply of higher provided budgeting, supplied to those with good ideas. The world is awash in good ideas. What is in short supply is fallacy free-thinking and leadership.
And for all those either in our portfolio or looking to join it, understand current wealth is a finite resource that must be applied only exactly where it will realize a real and not fallacy imagined returns. And know that growth is only realized in the realm of existent reality, fallacy free reality, the stark reality of the battlefield of the highly complex and interdependent global economic engine.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 7, 2015.
E.M. Burlingame is a Silicon Valley techpreneur and later Private Equity investor and Investment Banker with emphasis on very early-stage technology companies. Having recently completed active duty service with 1st BN 1st Special Forces Group, E.M. is now serving with 20th. E.M. is currently Founder of the Honos Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to empowering local entrepreneurship in violence repressed areas and Founder and Managing Director of Emerio Group, an early-stage investment advisory. Following a degree in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis at Norwich, he is now pursuing PhD studies in Interdisciplinary Engineering, with an emphasis on Computational Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.