Entrepreneurial Derailment: Watch out for your own Shadow!


In this article, I will summarize our case research on derailment, and show you how you can find out what your specific derailers might be.

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Entrepreneurs beware…of yourself!

Our research has shown that start ups don’t fail because of poor product, or because they run out of cash, or because they were overtaken by competition. These are mere symptoms which manifest themselves, and are frequently used as alibis to avoid a much more painfully realisation: We have an inbuilt human tenancy to derail our own businesses.

At Pivomo, we take a different and somewhat deeper view about underlying causation of start up derailment. We believe start ups fail because the founder team fragments; or deflects important advice; or becomes distracted by vanity projects; or underestimates the time and resources they need for the project. In fact, start ups fail for a whole host of causes which mostly relate to the dynamics within ourself, and between ourselves.

In a new book from the Ashridge Business School, authors Prof.Eric de Haan and Anthony Kosozi, write about the Leadership Shadow*. In this useful book, they describe the unconscious and subliminal processes that can cause derailment; but which can (if we allow it) also allow us to access huge creative and imaginative potential. Our shadow is often the cause of relational breakdown, distractions, loss of energy and….well, our tendency to act like jerks. The “shadow” residing in our unconscious minds has the capacity to decouple our rational mind, with surges of negative emotions and fears.

For example, when facing a difficult conversation with a co-founder, we can experience displaced anger and resentment from a quite different time and place. Our unconscious mind fuels our response with unnecessary fear; and we over-react as a result, causing rupture and patterns of mistrust.

Yet, our shadow can also be a source of creativity, energy and wisdom.

One of my favourite books is Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl Jung in 1938. In an chapter entitled “The process of individuation”, by M.-L. von Franz, we read of the Naskapi Indians, living in the forests of Labrador. Frank describes their basic view of life as follows:

“the soul of man is simply an “inner companion”, whom he calls “my friend”, or Mista’peo, meaning “Great man”.

Unlike too many of us today, the Nastapi are in contact with the “Great man” (or woman!). They Nastapi have an active dialogue with this friend who lives deep inside them. Good behaviour allows them to sleep well, and have a productive relationship with their “Great man”. Through their dreams, they can receive insight, warnings, and relate to patterns which we do not notice in the flow of everyday events. Alternatively, if the Nastapi behaved badly, lied and cheated for instance, they would find it had to access the their “Great man”, and therefore be devoid of their advice and support.

This “primitive” way of being has much to tell us about how to live and how to be an entrepreneur.

Our research makes clear our ability to access and interpret our unconscious drives can be a critical factor in staying on course, particularly as like the Nastapi, being an entrepreneur can sometimes appear like traversing a frozen wasteland with few signposts as to where to go.

Most studies on derailment tend to produce a rather long list of all the things that could possibly go wrong. Yet, as de Haan and Kosozi make clear, our shadow is very personal and unique to us. An entrepreneurial attribute in one person, could be another entrepreneurs derailment factor. Being headstrong and tenacious could make one entrepreneur successful; but for another, could cause pig-headedness and tunnel vision.

Moreover, being headstrong and tenacious; and being pig-headed and tunnel visioned are flip sides of the same coin and can coexist in the same person; rather as light and dark always coexist together. It is mostly down to us as to whether it is our light or darker side that is on display to the world, although people around us can evoke either the light or dark side of our persona. This is why the dynamics within a founder team are so critical: We are not just an aggregation of individuals; but we are co-creating communities that bring to the surface either the positive or negative aspects of ourselves.

Pivomo is in a unique place to understand entrepreneurial derailment, given the four years of research into entrepreneurial journeys and case histories. We have developed a model that enables entrepreneurs to predict what their derailment profiles might be.

For example, one entrepreneurial profile is the “Driver”: Top down strategist, with a big vision and a clear sense of being in charge. Their shadow is “The Engineer”: A tendency to over complicate outcomes, combined with poor listening and a lack of attention to the here and now.

By contrast, another profile is the “Director”. On a good day they are the founder who focuses on building the organization, the team and the core processes. Yet, they can be so concerned with maintaining harmony and stability that they ignore dissonance, and refuse to make the tough trade offs that are often necessary. They try to get too many people involved and the decision mechanisms “snow plough”.

While we are all unique individuals with our own signature shadow, there are common patterns that we can identify; and the settings of a start up will often have repetitive dynamics that we can anticipate and plan for.

It is vital that entrepreneurs and founders understand their shadow and its potential for causing derailment. Complete your Dynamiqe instrument and find out more about your shadow and the derailment factors that are specific to you. (Click Here)