The notion of the entrepreneur as mensch isn’t one that generates a lot of electricity. As a culture, we expect our entrepreneurs to be dashing, swashbuckling risk-takers—sort of like Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to shatter the sound barrier, with a spreadsheet. But a recent panel discussion at the Lauder Institute Alumni Association’s Global Business Forum in New York brought together a group of successful entrepreneurs who emphasized people skills over creative genius, good manners over killer instinct. “Friends come and go,” said one panelist. “Enemies accumulate. My ability to recruit in 2004 has everything to do with how I treated my partners in 2003, in 2002—and in 1976.” People talk, he explained, and every action with every human, from how you fire them to how fair you were in your dealings with them, will come back to you, for good or for bad.

Another panelist urged attendees not to measure success strictly by the bottom line. When you attend retirement parties, he said, you’ll find that the most meaningful aren’t for those who made the most money or rose to the highest rank. Instead, they are for those who had the most positive effect on the people around them.

Knowledge@Wharton 5-18 May 2004