Entrepreneurism 5: The Sentinel and his Fear of Failure

sentinelThe three primal forces – love of success, fear of failure, and need for excitement, can also be understood through the archetypes of the Hero, the Sentinel and the Maverick.  If a start-up can have a combination of all these forces in the right measure, a great business full of energy, purpose and perseverance can be created.

The Sentinel guards against failure, that’s the primary force that drives many entrepreneurs.  Can fear really ever be the driving force behind entrepreneurship?  This type of an entrepreneur is somewhat an antithesis of what popular media portray successful entrepreneurs to be, in that his definition of achievement is ‘not failing’.  The sentinel does typically tend to be less risk-taking, and also tends to be a more thoughtful decision-maker than the Hero.  But if failure looms, the Sentinel is capable of achieving some of the most extraordinary feats, and sometimes he would end up taking decisions that would be classified by most as extremely risky.

Is failure not the opposite of success? Then why should the fear of failure be any different from the love of success? The Sentinel’s key driving thought is something like that of a watchdog who is also a protector.  He may delegate to the people around him and not intervene much, as long as things are going fine. Or he may not be a delegator, but look carefully into each detail to ensure nothing goes wrong.  But in either case, it is the need to protect something that is the foremost thought.  What is the Sentinel protecting?  It could be any or all – himself, the business, the team, the assets, the status quo etc.  Like a mother hen, he watches over his domain and if he sees something not going right, he will intervene with great speed, intensity and force.

Note that unlike the Hero, the Sentinel is more focused, and has a vision which is closer to the near and the immediate.  Though he may respect the larger goodness of human beings and also be an environmentalist or suchlike, his actions are relatively more practical.

Who is the greatest ever Sentinel in the myths?  Kaikeyi the younger and perhaps favourite queen of Dashrath is undoubtedly up there in my rankings.  She was perfectly happy in her role as the younger queen, but when threatened she was capable of both great heroics and deep unscrupulous acts.  Faced with an enemy intent on killing her husband on a broken chariot, she used great ingenuity and bravery to save him (and herself).  When her husband asked her to name anything she wanted, she could not think of anything she wanted! Many years later, she was fine with the possibility of her stepson becoming King.  But when someone else convinced her that she needed to fear this development, she played her cards with great speed and no ambiguity.  Not only was the Kingship given to her son Bharata but his competitor Ram (who was also her favorite) was ruthlessly sent away to the forest.    Her son Bharata, was another Sentinel, he preferred to play the role of a protector of the throne for his brother Ram, than be a King.  His objective was not to fail within his own system of ethics and that resulted in an extraordinary action of giving up his Kingship followed by years of work with no reward for himself apart from not failing in his own eyes.

Sentinel driven businesses would rarely be in areas that are out of the ordinary and would typically be more likely to follow the trends, the degree of innovations may also be a little lesser in such businesses. And that is not necessarily a weakness because a good business also requires that the regular day to day operations occur smoothly. Arguably, a very large part of the Indian IT sector in its early days were driven by such personalities.  A neat business model was found in the eighties and nineties of addressing the dollar market and that concentrated on doing what made most immediate sense – take the conventional model as given and concentrate on getting implementation right.  This was followed by many years of making relatively minor bets and small innovations.  But the success was undoubtedly of a massive nature. A good business needs a good sentinel around somewhere.

I do not know the early history of Infosys, but from what I can gather, Narayan Murthy is a great Sentinel.  He seemed to have a hands-off approach for many years, but when times appeared to go bad he went to extraordinary lengths, sometimes breaking his own rules, to get the job done.  Again from media reports, he made a few enemies of people who had looked up to him, but to save Infosys from a position of slow but certain death, required razor-sharp actions.  The new regime at the helm of Infosys was by all accounts a risky bet.  For it was almost as if a new company was being created.

Whatever way we see it, a good Sentinel is a great asset to have for a start-up.  If the entrepreneur is weak in such instincts, he should try and get some people in his team who can be the watchdog we all need.  I will talk a bit more about this in the next one, where I describe the Maverick forces of entrepreneur-ism.


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