Can schools teach leadership?

Never has there been so much time and space devoted to entrepreneurs, from The Apprentice and Dragons' Den to dedicated courses in top business schools. Even secondary schools are now getting in on the act, writes Chris Ingram.

I only realised how far the interest in entrepreneurship (if not entrepreneurship itself) was becoming embedded in our culture when I was asked to give a talk at Woking High School last month. The school had stopped its busy schedule for the older children in order to have an afternoon of talks and competitions.

I’m not sure how well I engaged with 220 14 year-olds while telling them what it takes to be an entrepreneur, but the interesting thing is the message that teachers want you to give to their pupils.

Essentially, you’re expected to say: ‘Work hard, study hard and get the right qualifications.’ But how much of that can one honestly say? It’s a difficult thing to tell schools, but academic qualifications have little to do with success in running your own business. Looking at one of Bridge’s books of interviews with successful entrepreneurs, of the 40 interviewed, eight gained university degrees; two went to university but left prematurely and 30 never even went.

Different types of intelligence

We do know that successful entrepreneurs have to work incredibly hard. But do they need to be intelligent in the academic sense? Well, it helps, but most of all they need to be smart and savvy. Can they teach you that at school? It’s difficult, methinks, except on the playing fields.

I was able to tell them that an enquiring mind is helpful because you need to be always watching what’s happening in the market and asking: What are the outside influences on my business? What is the competition up to? At least this part went down well with the teachers, as they felt that too many kids aren’t interested in what’s going on in the world.

I said that two important qualities were agility and the ability to juggle.

The first one, agility, allows you to switch from one thing to another without needing a lot of notice. Even better is the ability to change direction at speed. Do they teach you this at school? Can they?

As for juggling several things at once – kids can certainly be prepared for this, as studying a diverse range of subjects and holding down a part-time job, for example, will be excellent practice. In fact, this is a quality kids have naturally, but which can be ruined by many big company cultures.

What is extraordinary, but rarely discussed is what causes the entrepreneurial drive and tenacity. In a large proportion of cases it is due to one of two factors – a tragedy or major setback in a child’s family. These events invariably happen when the individual is in his or her formative years – nearly always under 18.

Some of the biggest names in business have had tough beginnings: Paul Myners, former chairman of Marks & Spencer, was given away at birth, spent three years in a children’s home and was then adopted; CNN founder Ted Turner’s father committed suicide; fashion giant Paul Smith was dyslexic and started as an errand boy at 15; venture capital legend Ronnie Cohen’s Jewish family was forced to leave Egypt when he was 11 and his family’s financial status in the UK was memorably precarious.

If you can come through setbacks like this then there is not much in business that is going to deter you.

Father figures

Just as common is an unhappy childhood – often for boys it can be a poor relationship with that father, a child being bullied at school or being constantly unfavourably compared with siblings. Very often there is a sense of rejection, but sometimes these may be slights that are embellished in the mind of the individual. But the effect is the same: a huge desire to prove people wrong which continues even when success has been achieved. By then it becomes a drive for recognition.

The sad fact is that only a minority of successful entrepreneurs are happy, well-balanced people. Perversely, this means I was able to tell those kids that the ones who were really struggling at school had the best chance of being successful entrepreneurs.

I’m not sure I’ll be invited back.

Chris Ingram has considerable experience of building and managing rapid-growth companies and is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern media agency. He started CIA in 1976 with 3 people and £10,000. It grew into Tempus Group and was sold to WPP for over £430 million in 2001. In 2002 he launched Genesis Investments, a private equity business, and, in July 2003, The Ingram Partnership, a strategic brand building and communications consultancy.

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

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