Can entrepreneurship be taught? Yes, if we refocus on entrepreneurial leadership.

In a recent special report in the Wall Street Journal, Noam Wasserman and Victor Hwang debate the age old question of “Can Entrepreneurship be Taught?”    Not surprisingly Hwang and Wasserman did not come to a definitive conclusions on the topic.  However, as I read their debate I saw an easy answer to their question.  The answer is entrepreneurial leadership.

Entrepreneurs are at their core entrepreneurial leaders.  They don’t just need to learn analysis to make “informed decisions” as Wasserman points out and they don’t just need to know how to act their way through the “messiness” and “uncertainty that comes with every aspect of entrepreneurial decision making” as Hwang suggests.   Entrepreneurial leaders need to do both.  They need to be cognitively ambidextrous so that they are able to act their way into unknowable situations and at the same time they need to have strong analytic skills so that they can learn from their actions and make informed next decisions.  By integrating these two distinct ways of thinking and acting, entrepreneurial leaders are engaging cognitive ambidexterity.   Furthermore, entrepreneurial leaders rely on “a deep understanding of people” as Hwang advocates as they take action that considers their networks, relationships, and the contexts in which they are operating.

In reshifting our focus to entrepreneurial leaders, we begin to also realize that it is only by integrating Wasserman and Hwang’s viewpoints that we can come to a comprehensive answer about how to teach entrepreneurial leaders.  In short we need a hybrid approach in which we integrate Wasserman’s ideas of teaching traditional analytics and risk management with Hwang’s perspective that we need to teach leaders to experiment and learn as they act their way into unknowable situations.  Yet, it is not enough to teach entrepreneurial leaders to be cognitively ambidextrou, they also need to learn how to take action based on a fundamentally different world view of business.  Entrepreneurial leaders need to learn how to tap into their passion and dreams to fuel their work and they need to know how to open doors and engage other people in their ideas.  Finally, as Hwang points out entrepreneurial leaders also need to consider the communities around them as they find ways to create value for themselves, their organizations, and the wider society.  If management educators were to focus on teaching students these three principles: 1. how to think and act in a cognitively ambidextrous way, 2. how to engage your passion and the people around you, and 3. how to consider social, environmental, and economic value creation, we would be able to say that yes we can teach entrepreneurship.

The question “Can entrepreneurship be taught?” was the wrong question to ask.  The question needs to be “What do entrepreneurs need to know?” and “How best can we teach them?”  By reorienting our management curriculum towards developing entrepreneurial leaders, I believe we can begin to come to an answer that incorporates the best of Wasserman and Hwang’s perspective.