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Happy InterDependence Day! The Fall of the Myth of the Independent Entrepreneur

The month of July starts in the United States with a commemoration of US Congress’ decision to declare independence from the British Empire and adopt the Declaration of Independence. On Independence Day, we Americans celebrate the right of all people to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” For nearly 250 years, this mantra of liberty and self-determination has been not only a political theme in the United States, but a cultural touchstone of the entrepreneurial personality. For Americans, innovators are frontier-busting, swashbuckling risk-takers who ‘move fast and break things‘.  Americans have historically accepted outrageously bad behavior (‘breaking things’), because entrepreneurs get things done. Or at least that is the myth: Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s ‘founding fathers’ is rumored both to have discovered electricity by flying a kite in lightning, and to have had a strong appetite for very young women. There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding both accounts, but the point is that the myth of the risky kite-flying womanizer makes sense to Americans as the iconic image of an innovator.

But this image of innovation may be reaching the end of its useful life.

For one thing, it isn’t scalable.  Our challenges, nationally and globally, are too big and complex to be solved by the occasional individual who can trounce cultural norms to build something new. We need, instead, cultural norms and networks that support innovative thinking in all of us. These days, we need ecosystems —communities that provide the interactions that encourage innovation at all levels.  Last month, I was privileged to attend the first annual Kauffman Foundation Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Builder’s Summit a remarkable meeting of over 400 founders, platform builders, local and national policy makers, investing institutions, incubators and accelerators in Kansas City, Missouri. Their goal was to strengthen the ecoystems that lead to innovation and improve economic and civic participation in American communities.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James kicked off the meeting with strong words about the kinds of people that are needed in this work: “There’s the independent person, who relies on everybody else to do things.  There’s the independent person who thinks they can do everything by themselves.  And then there are the interdependent people, who realize that their true strength comes from working together, being part of a team, everybody offering their thoughts, their skills, their ideas. [Interdependent people] are able and willing to subjugate and mesh those together into one cogent thought, idea, practice, or business program.”

The need for trust and the value of diversity came up repeatedly in Kansas City. And that’s the other reason why the myth of the lone, macho innovator may be at the end.  They are more likely to break trust and dismiss diversity than to build them.  Best example: Travis Kalanick, creator of Uber. His bad behavior with all of the members of his ecosystem—from regulators, to drivers, to female engineers on the Uber staff—cost him his job late last month when members of his Board began to realize the potential costs of the toxic culture he had encouraged by example. (I discussed the cultural issue in more depth on CGTN’s daily Global Business program following Kalanick’s ouster—details below).

So, friends in and beyond the United States, "Happy InterDependence Day!"

Each month, the Catalyst provides a quick list of useful and provocative sources for thinking more deeply and building strong strategic narratives in our institutions, communities and nations. This month:

Book: Warnings, Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes

Last year, political scientist Philip Tetlock published a book about the characteristics of people who are good at predicting future events this year, Richard Clarke, a former official under President Reagan and both Bush Presidents, and R.P.Eddy, a former director of the White House National Security Council, bring us a book about why decision makers don’t always listen to the warnings of those who accurately predict bad events.  Cassandra, as Greek mythology has it, was given the gift of prophesy by the god Apollo, but when she rejected his advances he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prognostications.

Clarke and Eddy analyze contemporary Cassandras to develop a rough qualitative “algorithm,” which they call the Cassandra coefficient, for evaluating when Cassandras’ warnings warrant greater attention.  They tell the stories of figures such as Ivor van Heeden, a scientist who spent years trying to generate action to prevent the catastrophe that eventually befell New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and Harry Markopolos, a financial advisor who tried but failed to have the US Securities and Exchange Commission bring down Bernie Madoff, who was later discovered to have perpetrated the largest fraud by an individual ever.

According to the Cassandra Coefficient, we should evaluate four different components of a warning in order to determine whether it warrants further scrutiny: (1) The warning itself; (2) The decison makers or audience for the prediction; (3) The temperament and thinking style of the “Cassandra,” and, (4) The nature of the criticism that the warning is receiving from antagonists.

Using criteria they have developed for each component, the authors explore a number of current-day warnings on potential future events, from a meteor strike to a gene edited baby.  These potential cases are the most compelling part of the book, and make a great starting point for all of us seeking to grow sharper about how to make sense of the complex signals of our world, and the experts who assess them.

You can find the book HERE

  • CGTN Interview about Uber’s future.  Valued at USD $70 billion earlier this spring, Uber was the most highly valued start up in the United States. Yet whether that can be sustained by the severely dysfunctional company culture that resulted in the CEO’s unseating is an open question.  I discussed the issue with CGTN’s Global Business program at the end of June.  You can find the video HERE

  • Attend a high-level, innovative French conference on the future of tourism at a 50% discount. The organizers of a Les Entretiens de Vixouze: World Meetings on the Tourism of the Future, are kindly offering members of my network 50% discounts to the event (I will be providing the closing keynote). It will be held over two days, September 7-8, in the lovely French region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The discount includes both days of registration, meals and a Gala dinner. You can learn more about the conference HERE and if you or a colleague would like the discount code, please write me at to request it.

  • If you are enjoying The Catalyst and know others who might like it as well, they can sign up for their own subscription HERE

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