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Why everyone is now - or can be - a leader but only if...., October 16, 2008
on October 16, 2008
Seth Godin's books and blog provide a wealth of information, observations, opinions, and (especially) challenges that can help others to overcome what James O'Toole so aptly characterizes as "the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom." In this, his most recent book, he urges his reader to consider and then take full advantage of unprecedented opportunities to become a leader. He cites five different but related reasons: "everyone in an organization - not just the boss - is expected to lead," in today's workplace "it's easier than ever before to change things [and] individuals have more leverage than ever before," those and their organizations that "change things and create remarkable products and services" are rewarded in the marketplace, change initiatives are "engaging, thrilling, profitable and fun," and most of all, there is a "tribe" of other people waiting for a leader "to connect them to one another and lead them where they want to go."
In this context, I am reminded of a passage from Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching:
"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves. "
This is precisely what Godin has in mind when asserting that great leaders "create movements by empowering the tribe [i.e. those with a shared interest] to communicate. They establish the foundation for people to make connections, as opposed to commanding people to follow." The communication to which he refers is between and among the leader and members of a tribe who are connected by a shared interest, a common cause (i.e. "a passionate goal"), and a determination to create things that did not exist before, to achieve something that could happen but hasn't yet. Godin stresses the need for leaders with imagination. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, those who "dream things that never were and say why not."
In his recent published book, Iconoclast, Gregory Berns examines a number of leaders, each of whom was a "breaker or destroyer of images," who in recent years accomplished what others claimed could not be done. When doing so, these modern iconoclasts attacked orthodox beliefs and, in some cases, institutions. "The overarching theme of this book is that iconoclasts are able to do things that others say can't be done, because iconoclasts perceive things differently than other people." Berns goes on to explain that the difference in perception "plays out in the initial stages of an idea. It plays out in how their manage their fears, and it manifests in how they pitch their ideas to the masses of noniconoclasts. It is an exceedingly rare individual who possesses all three of these traits." One of Godin's most important points is that almost anyone can be an iconoclast if she or he creates a movement by empowering a tribe and motivating its members to attack and then destroy the status quo, meanwhile connecting them to each other to leverage their combined strengths.
I agree with Godin that leaders "make a ruckus." So did Alcibiades' drunken seamen who, while ashore and roaming the streets of Athens late one night, smashed sacred icons. It is important to keep in mind that Godin's "tribe" is not a mob, not is it a crowd. "A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication." It is easy to collect a crowd. The objective, Godin, suggests, is to create a tribe. Will it be easy? Of course not. That requires more time and effort to motivate, connect, and leverage its members. Also, it is necessary for leaders to overcome fear, not of failure but of blame. "We chose not to be remarkable because we're worried about criticism." Recent research conducted by the Gallup Organization indicates that 29% of the U.S. workforce is engaged (i.e. loyal, enthusiastic, and productive) whereas 55% is passively disengaged. That is, they are going through the motions, doing only what they must, "mailing it in," coasting, etc. What about the other 16%? They are actively disengaged in that they are doing whatever they can to undermine their employer's efforts to succeed. They have a toxic impact on their associates and, in many instances, on customer relations.
Godin would describe the passively disengaged as "sleepwalkers," those who "have been raised to be obedient" and are comfortable "with brain-dead jobs and enough fear to keep in line." For at least some of them, leaders provide the will to make something better happen. I could be wrong but I doubt of he would characterize actively disengaged as "heretics," those who are "engaged, passionate, and more powerful and happier than anyone else." Yes, they threaten the status quo but demonstrate what Joseph Schumpeter describes as "creative destruction." With effective leadership, they support and are supported by their tribe to achieve, together, beneficial change whereas the actively disengaged seek only disruption and destruction.
In my opinion, this is Godin's most important book thus far because he challenges his reader to accept full responsibility for becoming a tribal leader of principled and productive agents of positive change. "No one gives you permission or approval or a permit to lead, You can just do it. The only one who can say no is you." But he doesn't stop there. He also challenges his reader to share his book with others. "Ask them to read it. Beg them to make a choice about leadership. We need them. We need you. Spread the word. Thanks."
Now what? Read this book. Then what? That's up to you.