Search for the term mercenary or missionary in business or entrepreneurship and you will find that there are several articles written on the subject. While most authors seem to favor the missionary approach, other well-credentialed writers, investors, and consultants appear to think that being a mercenary is the better path to business success. Our research suggests that the most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders must be both mercenaries and missionaries.
Determining whether the business leader is a mercenary or missionary will depend primarily on motivation. According to Edology, a leading provider of education technology services, “not all entrepreneurs are driven by the same motivations, and motivation is what defines the culture of a company.” Simply stated, if your motivation is to make money without regard to other considerations, you are a mercenary. Alternately, if you are motivated by a passion for, say, sustainability or serving customers, you are probably a missionary. We think both motivations are noble objectives and we do not think they are mutually exclusive.
Defining Mercenary & Missionary
In a June 2016 blog post published in The Telegraph, one of the UK’s largest newspapers, Rebecca Burn-Callander writes that the debate over mercenary vs. missionary is not a new idea. She says that Kleiner Perkins Chairman, John Doerr, defined the two entrepreneurial types 20 years ago through a series of comparisons:
- Mercenaries are driven by paranoia; missionaries are driven by passion.
- Mercenaries think opportunistically; missionaries think strategically.
- Mercenaries go for the sprint; missionaries go for the marathon.
- Mercenaries focus on their competitors and financial statements; missionaries focus on their customers and value statements.
- Mercenaries are bosses of wolf packs; missionaries are mentors or coaches of teams.
- Mercenaries worry about entitlements; missionaries are obsessed with contributing.
- Mercenaries are motivated by the lust for making money; missionaries, while recognizing the importance of money, are fundamentally driven by the desire to make meaning.
We challenge you to tell us which one of these 14 traits is not a good thing. If, rather than listing seven comparative statements, we listed 14 traits of a successful entrepreneur and asked you to tell us which four of the 14 to eliminate, which would you choose? I couldn’t choose any of them. I would want the company I lead to have people that exhibit all these characteristics.
Bill Taylor, a co-founder of Fast Company, writing in a blog post for Harvard Business Review, says that you should have a “values proposition” as well as a value proposition. He explains that a value proposition defines what you sell, whereas a “values proposition” explains what you believe in.
Of course, anyone who starts a successful, sustainable business has the right to assess their own success as they see fit. They have the right to decide if their business is a mercenary or a missionary or both.
Venture capital veteran Robert Klein, writing in The Telegraph article mentioned earlier, says that “Every business requires a different mix of missionary and mercenary. If you get the blend right, the business will be a tremendous success. You want someone who is passionate and will move mountains to make an idea happen, but they must also understand the financial imperative of building a profitable business.”
For us, the lesson is that whether you identify your business as high-tech or Main Street, your success may well be determined by the intensity of your motivation. Perhaps you are a bit more missionary than mercenary, or maybe you lean in the mercenary direction. What matters is that you find the right balance and then clearly communicate the nature of your motivation to your team. No matter whether it is the Big Idea or the next sale, they will follow. And don’t forget the balance between mercenary and missionary should be communicated clearly in your business plan. It would be a mistake to allow your investors to speculate about your motivation for creating and building a business you are asking them to invest in.