Henry Stewart, the founder of the London-based IT training company Happy Computers, had twin inspirations when he set up his business nearly 20 years ago.
The first was his experience at the short-lived newspaper News on Sunday, which showed him how not to run a business. The other was rather more positive – the "great stories about how people have done it" that he has encountered in management books. He cites as a key influence Ricardo Semler's Maverick, a book in vogue in the 1990s as a how-to manual for managers wanting to encourage employee participation. It turned Stewart from "an embattled small businessman, ringing back every day from holiday, into somebody who sets the principles and guidelines".
It is the sort of testimonial that helps to justify the huge business-book market. Prominent among the nitty-gritty volumes on the mechanics of business are countless books by, and about, business celebrities. Presumably, some people read them for the entertainment, but an important aspect behind many is the idea that they will inspire readers to emulate Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Alan Sugar, and so on.
Nor is it just books. Reality television has also entered the business world with the likes of The Apprentice and Dragons' Den, promoting the idea that Alan Sugar, Peter Jones and the rest have something to teach. In some cases, it may be true. But it could also be argued that that older television depiction of business, Dallas, is as valid as a depiction of how business works today.
That is not to say that role models are not important in either inspiring people to set up a business in the first place or in helping them give a direction to an existing business. But inspiration and encouragement does not have to come just from within the commercial world. Many founders and managers have been inspired by all kinds of people – from political and military leaders to athletes and coaches.
Who a business chooses (and, more importantly, states) as an inspiration is increasingly important as a marker in a crowded marketplace. In an effort to understand better what is driving today's independent businesses, The Independent and CultureMap, a think-tank focused on small and medium-sized businesses, are launching a role model survey. It will take a few minutes of your time to complete, but the answers will tell us – volumes about business today when they are published next month. So, if you are the owner or a director of a company employing up to 250 staff, we'd like to hear from you.
To take part in the survey go to www.independent.co.uk/news/business/sme