What Stefan the Great can Teach you about Eastern European Innovation

If you were not born in Romania you will probably have no idea who Stefan the Great is. And I think that is one of the reasons Romanians (and you can extend the argument to the region) are poor innovators.

 Meet Stefan the Great

Meet Stefan the Great

Romanians consider him one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Prince there was in the history of the country. He is on the cover of textbooks and his name is heard among the first when politicians talk about smart leadership. He is also a saint because he built a lot of churches. Very few of them are still around because the quality was not top notch. But he also had many wifes and mistresses. He fought the Turks for about 40 years but when he won he did it by burning the entire country, thus starving the Turkish soldiers and forcing them to retreat (quite a stupid strategy if you ask me). And after 40 years of opposing the Ottoman Empire he gave up and made peace with the Sultan,  at the cost of an expensive annual tribute. According to recent study he is considered the greatest Romanian of all times. 

I bring this up because today I will speak at a business Romanian Conference. The topic is innovation. More specifically how to export innovation globally. It's quite a funny subject because I am supposed to talk about exporting innovation when the main challenge is creating innovation, not exporting it. I'll use Stefan to explain this.

Innovation is relative

Stefan was by global standards a very bad leader. He intentionally destroyed his own country, for almost 50 years, to avoid paying tribute, although the cost or rebuilding the whole country year over year was far more expensive than that. And at the end he paid it anyway. He may be a hero for Romanians but for the rest of the world he does not exist. 

It's the same with innovation. Romanians think they are the greatest world innovators. And if my other European friends are telling the truth it's the same with all the other countries in the region. 

Stefan might have been a memorable leader locally. But for the rest of the world he was irrelevant. The innovations that are touted here (like video streaming or email marketing software) are not that innovative if you get your head out of the ground. Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. 

Innovation is struggle

Stefan thought he is protecting Europe from the Ottoman Empire. The Pope even assured him of his greatest support and admiration. Stefan fought thinking he would get money and weapons from his European friends. That of course never happened. He failed to understand that in the eyes of the European leaders he was just a stupid "unemployed" leader who kept the Turks busy. 

He failed at customer development then and centuries later Romanians continue to do the same mistake. 

Innovation is about not giving up

Among many things Churchill once said: "Never give in - never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

In Romania one of the most popular proverbs says: "No sword cuts off a bowed head". And Stefan must have heard this by the end of his reign: "Oh ... screw it. I am out of here. Call the Sultan. I give up."

Innovation requires taking chances, breaking rules … boldly going where no man has gone before. And not giving up. Innovation is not invention. Innovation is implementation. And for that you need to fight the system, the rules society is based on.... You need to fight the status quo. 


 Romanians adore Stefan and that sucks. If you ask me Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) is a better role model.