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Ego and the Entrepreneur

I would characterize my husband as the type of person obsessed with watching seemingly odd television shows. To his credit, most of the things he has roped me into watching I have ended up enjoying. I guess odd ducks fly together.

One night I arrived home after working late, and noticed that we had a new show on our PVR called Living In Your Car. “What on earth? (censored)”, I ask. My husband proceeds to tell me that he heard about this new show on HBO Canada and that it is about a guy whose life takes some strange turns after getting out on parole after being convicted of securities fraud. “Ok, I’m in”, I said.

There are many reasons why I like this show. For one, the lead character, Steve Unger, is played by John Ralston, a great Canadian actor. Ralston is like a younger version of the actor Corbin Bernsen, who played Arnie Becker in LA Law, who in many respects is very similar to Steve Unger.

I know there are a lot of you who loved the Arnie Becker character, and so if you liked LA Law, you might like Living In Your Car. (Yes, I realize I sound like I am trying to sell you accessories out of a JC Penney catalogue.)

Let me tell you a little something about my career. When I say that I work in HR, that often means I work on compensation projects. My focus is in the private sector, and I have a few private equity and venture capital clients who get me involved in helping to sort out all kinds of issues in businesses they buy, including the compensation of the executives in their businesses. I am in regular contact with entrepreneurs. Accordingly, with regards to the personality of the character of Steve Unger, let’s just say that I’ve met a few people like him over the years.

Herein lies my real interest in the show—the personality type of Steve Unger. He built a very successful business from scratch. Admirable. There aren’t many people who have the risk tolerance to do it. He did it by misrepresenting the financial statements and by taking some investors for a ride. Not-so-admirable. In his mind though, he viewed what he did not as illegal but as a risk decision. To me, a high tolerance for risk is a fundamental characteristic of a good entrepreneur.

Steve Unger is flawed yet lovable. He’s self-centred. He’s privileged. He’s got a huge ego. He believes that he has to be that way to be successful and that, get this, other people benefit by his ego. In the allocution of his crime, he admitted that he broke the rules but he was steadfast in his belief that he was doing it for the right reasons. He cites the jobs he was trying to create, and the wealth that was intended to be returned to the investors. I really don’t think he was trying to steal from anyone.

The show focuses on his life after being paroled. He believes that the path to getting back on his feet has to do with not compromising on certain things—the primary one being that he refuses to give up his $300K Rolls Royce which has creditor protection because his lawyer technically has possession of it. That car is so important that he lives in it. Homeless and unemployed, he survives by trying one plot after another to scratch the backs of some people in order to get them to scratch his. In one foiled attempt to help his fellow down and outs, he attempts to unionize a clan of worm pickers (a profession I did not know existed in Toronto but apparently does). In reality, his primary motivation is avoid manual labour in favour of being their supervisor, but the more profound underlying motivation is to ensure these hard working people get paid fairly for this back-breaking work.

Perhaps this is my Reaganomics trickle down training influencing me, but I think commerce needs characters like Steve Unger. Before you press send on that hate mail, hear me out. I’m not saying that what Steve did was right or should be condoned, however we need people who have a thirst for greed and who can make that greed benefit others. These are people who can weed through the minutia and stay focused on that prize and they are people who know how to take a short cut when the long way seems silly. These are people who are selfish enough to ask “what’s in it for me” and generous enough to say “I’ll give you some of it”.

The mood today is to spend a lot of effort trying to curb or place limitations on the greed of the Steves of the world. We seem hell bent to ensure there is some sort of artificial cap on any compensation over $200K. When that doesn’t work, we seem to spend a lot of effort in humiliating and chastising these entrepreneurs for being so self-centred and greedy. In doing so, we lose the inertia they bring to build things that sometimes require fortitude to build. Perhaps the focus should be redirected to providing greater clarity in the areas that are absolutely off limits, and less time trying to make entrepreneurship a bad word.

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