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How to Be Wrong

John Zogby, the successful pollster, was completely, utterly wrong about Al Gore in Florida. By ten points. And he was wrong about John Kerry, and wrong about his prediction for the New Hampshire primaries in 2008. But notice that I said “successful pollster,” not “disgraced pollster.” If he wasn’t willing to be wrong, he’d be unable to be right as often as he is.

Isaac Newton was totally, fantastically wrong about alchemy, the branch of science he spent most of his career on. He was as wrong as a scientist could be. And yet, he’s widely regarded as the most successful scientist and mathematician ever.

Steve Jobs was wrong about the Apple III, wrong about the NeXT computer, wrong about the Newton. Insanely wrong. You know the rest.

The secret of being wrong isn’t to avoid being wrong!

The secret is being willing to be wrong.

The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal.

The only thing that makes people and organizations great is their willingness to be not great along the way. The desire to fail on the way to reaching a bigger goal is the untold secret of success.

I’ve been waiting for you to ask for the shortcut, the error-free, failure-free way to get people to do what you want, to make change happen without risk or fear, to magically alter the status quo. That, after all, is the best way to sell you on the ideas here. If I could just give you the answer, you’d be leading a tribe right now.

The honest answer is: There isn’t an easy way. It isn’t easy for middle managers or CEOs or heretics. The truth is that they appear to risk everything, but in fact, the risk isn’t so bad. The downsides are pretty small because few of us are likely to get burned at the stake.

The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there.

People will follow.

The Timing of Leadership

It’s rare that it’s obvious when to lead. Sure, there are times when you know you need to stand up, take a position, spread an idea, clear out an obstacle, and be brave.

But more often than not, great leadership happens when the tribe least expects it. The nonobvious moments are the ones that count. Like now, perhaps.

The Reactionary Tribe

So far, we’ve been talking about tribes as leadership-loving, fast-moving, progressive organizations that thrive on change. And most tribes, especially as they grow, are just that.

But sooner or later, tribes get stuck. Let’s look at Wikipedia again. Wikipedia is a nonprofit that is run by a conservative board and several thousand dedicated volunteers. And most of them don’t want anything at all to change.

In recent months, Wikipedia volunteers have gone on a campaign to delete tens of thousands of pages that don’t meet the tribe’s vague standards. At the same time, Florence Nibart-Devouard, the chairwoman of the Wikipedia board, is actively campaigning to ensure that no one makes particularly large donations to the foundation. She was quoted by the New York Times as saying that she would “make some noise” if an aggressive outsider was to try to become a board member.

What to do with a tribe like this?

If your goal is to make change, it’s foolish to try to change the worldview of the majority if the majority is focused on maintaining the status quo. The opportunity is to carve out a new tribe, to find the rabble-rousers and change lovers who are seeking new leadership and run with them instead.

Yes, I think it’s okay to abandon the big, established, stuck tribe. It’s okay to say to them, “You’re not going where I need to go, and there’s no way I’m going to persuade all of you to follow me. So rather than standing here watching the opportunities fade away, I’m heading off. I’m betting some of you, the best of you, will follow me.”

Possibility of Risk

I was listening to a talking head on the radio, and he was prattling on about a “probability of risk” related to some course of action in the future. People are so afraid of risk they can’t even use the word. Risk, after all, is a probability of failure, right? So this guy was warning us of a probability of a probability. He couldn’t even say it.

It’s all a risk. Always.

That’s not true, actually. The only exception: it’s a certainty that there’s risk. The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is. That’s because the world is certainly, definitely, and more than possibly changing.

When Tribes Replace What You’re Used To

The brilliant venture capitalist Fred Wilson got me thinking about what purpose a traditional firm (corporation, nonprofit, church, whatever) serves. He quotes Ronald Coase, the Nobel laureate in economics: There are a number of transaction costs to using the market; the cost of obtaining a good or service via the market is actually more than just the price of the good. Other costs, including search and information costs, bargaining costs, keeping trade secrets, and policing and enforcement costs, can all potentially add to the cost of procuring something with a firm. This suggests that firms will arise when they can arrange to produce what they need internally and somehow avoid these costs.

In other words, we start formal organizations when it’s cheaper than leading a tribe instead. Having employees, for example, gives you a tight interaction of communication and output that used to be difficult to accomplish from a less formal tribe. Having soldiers, for example, is seen as more reliable than earning the trust and support of the entire population.

The Internet changes this because you can build a bigger, faster, cheaper tribe than you used to be able to. The new economy changes this because the transaction costs are falling fast while the costs of formal organizations (offices, benefits, management) keep increasing.

Many big organizations are getting bigger as a way of fighting off the power of tribes. They buy other companies, hoping that the formal nature of their bigness will somehow successfully fight off the flexible, fast, and sometimes free power of the tribe. I think that’s unlikely.


The timid leave a vacuum.

Workers in the balloon factory are always afraid, particularly of something happening. Things that happen are rarely good, because they disturb the status quo.

That’s why initiative is such an astonishingly successful tool: because it’s rare. Even a little bit of action, a few new ideas, or a tiny bit of initiative can fill the vacuum. It’s a big deal to spill just a few drops of Hawaiian Punch on a spotless white tablecloth. People notice.

When Barbara Barry, the now famous furniture designer, was looking for a manufacturing partner for her first line of sofas, she invited executives from a leading manufacturer to her showroom in Los Angeles.

Before she did that, though, she took some initiative.

First, she managed to place a wholesale order for reams of fabric that the manufacturer traditionally used on its own furniture.

She rented an office big enough to turn into a showroom.

She designed a line of furniture that was bold and even breathtaking, and then she had a local shop build one of each piece, upholstered in the company’s signature fabric.

When the executives arrived, expecting a sales pitch and some drawings, they saw finished sofas. Made from their materials, with their brand label sewn on. After the fact, it’s easy to say that it wasn’t much—a few thousand dollars’ worth of custom furniture. But in that moment, for that industry, it was more than enough. It changed the rules.

Barbara wasn’t managing her career or asking permission from the furniture executives. She was leading, and enjoying every moment of it.

The organizations that need innovation the most are the ones that do the most to stop it from happening. It’s a bit of a paradox, but once you see it, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

Stuck on Stupid

My colleague Gil likes to quote U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, pointing out that too many people get “stuck on stupid.” I’m imagining that your colleagues aren’t stupid. But when the world changes, the rules change. And if you insist on playing today’s games by yesterday’s rules, you’re stuck. Stuck with a stupid strategy. Because the world changed.

Some organizations are stuck. Others move quickly. In a changing world, who’s having more fun?

Mark Rovner, Nonprofit Heretic

Mark has been challenging the status quo of the nonprofit world for years. He’s very successful at it and he’s having a ball.

Here’s one example of the sort of trouble that leaders need to cause. Mark started an online debate about the future of direct mail fund-raising. This income stream is the lifeblood of most nonprofits, and it’s drying up. The Internet, of course, is supposed to be the solution to all problems, but as Mark points out, it’s not.

The era of cheap direct mail and high response rates in acquisitions is over. The economics of direct mail are failing. That is more or less an uncontroverted fact. It costs more to mail, and fewer new donors come back with each mailing. This trend has been masked somewhat by higher average gifts by donors you already have, but sooner or later, the acquisition crisis is going to affect bottom lines. For some, it already has.

What currently passes for an online fundraising model is at best a stopgap.

My take: I despair for most of the top fifty nonprofits in the United States. These are the big guys, and they’re stuck. Far more than the Fortune 100, not known for being cutting edge in themselves, the top charities rarely change. If you’re big, you’re used to being big and you expect to stay big. That means that generation after generation of staff has been hired to keep doing what’s working. Big risks and crazy schemes are certainly frowned upon.

The good news is this: the Internet is not a replacement for direct mail fund-raising. It is, in fact, something much bigger than that for just about every nonprofit.

As soon as commerce started online, many nonprofits generated lots of income from their Web sites. This was mistakenly chalked up to brilliant conversion and smart marketing. In fact, it was the result of technologically advanced donors using a more convenient method to send in money they would have sent in anyway.

The big win is in changing the very nature of what it means to support a charity. The idea of “I gave at the office” and of giving money in the last week in December speaks to obligation. Many people donate to satisfy a guilty feeling or to please a friend. This doesn’t scale. Not one bit. It’s super easy to ignore a direct mail solicitation when all you have to do is hit Delete and no one notices.

The big win is in turning donors into patrons and activists and participants. The biggest donors are the ones who not only give, but also do the work. The ones who make the soup or feed the hungry or hang the art. My mom was a volunteer for years at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and there’s no doubt at all that we gave more money to the museum than we would have if they’d sent us a flyer once a month.

The Internet allows some organizations to embrace long-distance involvement. It lets charities flip the funnel, not through some simple hand waving but by reorganizing around the idea of engagement online. This is the new leverage. It means opening yourself up to volunteers and encouraging them to network, to connect with one another, and, yes, even to mutiny. It means giving every one of your professionals a blog and the freedom to use it. It means mixing it up with volunteers so they have something truly at stake. This is understandably scary for many nonprofits, but I’m not so sure you have a choice.

Do you have to abandon the old ways today? Of course not. But responsible stewardship requires that you find and empower the heretics and give them the flexibility to build something new, instead of trying to force the Internet to act like direct mail with free stamps.

The Posture of a Leader

If you hear my idea but don’t believe it, that’s not your fault; it’s mine.

If you see my new product but don’t buy it, that’s my failure, not yours.

If you attend my presentation and you’re bored, that’s my fault too.

If I fail to persuade you to implement a policy that supports my tribe, that’s due to my lack of passion or skill, not your shortsightedness.

If you are a student in my class and you don’t learn what I’m teaching, I’ve let you down.

It’s really easy to insist that people read the manual. It’s really easy to blame the user/student/prospect/customer for not trying hard, for being too stupid to get it, or for not caring enough to pay attention. It might even be tempting to blame those in your tribe who aren’t working as hard at following as you are at leading. But none of this is helpful.

What’s helpful is to realize that you have a choice when you communicate. You can design your products to be easy to use. You can write so your audience hears you. You can present in a place and in a way that guarantees that the people you want to listen will hear you. Most of all, you get to choose who will understand (and who won’t).

Switching Tribes

As your tribe grows, it’s tempting to accelerate that growth, to find more people to join the tribe.

The most obvious prospects, of course, are already members of other tribes. If you can persuade that rabid soccer fan to switch to football instead, it’s a coup. Or consider the full-page ad in the New York Times paid for by hundreds of evangelical Christians, encouraging religious Jews to switch teams. And there goes a politician, eagerly courting the loudest partisans from the other side to join her team instead.

This rarely works.

People don’t like to switch. We may eagerly join a company and slog through a job for years, staying until the place finally declares bankruptcy. No, it’s not the same company we joined at the beginning, far from it, but to switch sides is to admit that we made a mistake.

Growth doesn’t come from persuading the most loyal members of other tribes to join you. They will be the last to come around. Instead, you’ll find more fertile ground among seekers, among people who desire the feeling they get when they’re part of a vibrant, growing tribe, but who are still looking for that feeling.

I’m not talking about disaffected outsiders, loners who work hard not to affiliate. I’m talking about people at the fringes, individuals who might jump from one thing to another with less angst.

If you’re trying to persuade the tribe at work to switch from one strategy to the other, don’t start with the leader of the opposition. Begin instead with the passionate individuals who haven’t been embraced by other tribes yet. As you add more and more people like these, your option becomes safer and more powerful—then you’ll see the others join you.

Not Now, Not Yet

The largest enemy of change and leadership isn’t a “no.” It’s a “not yet.” “Not yet” is the safest, easiest way to forestall change. “Not yet” gives the status quo a chance to regroup and put off the inevitable for just a little while longer.

Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.

The curve below shows the benefits of almost any innovation over time:

By the time you realize that your corner of the world is ready for an innovation, it’s almost certainly too late. It’s definitely not too early.

“It’s not time,” “Take it easy,” “Wait and see,” “It’s someone else’s turn”—none of these stalls are appropriate for a leader in search of change. There’s a small price for being too early, but a huge penalty for being too late. The longer you wait to launch an innovation, the less your effort is worth.

Understanding the Trick

Magician and essayist Jamy Ian Swiss has written about the annoying and shortsighted kid who shouts out to the performing magician, “I know how you do that trick!” Does it really matter that you know?

The world is jam-packed with books and manuals on how to do the trick, whatever the trick is. The leadership trick has been endlessly dissected. So if it’s so easy to figure out how to do the trick, why do so few people do it? If it’s so easy to figure out how to do the Twisted Aces or the French Drop, why are so few people amazing?

Because, of course, it has nothing to do with knowing how the trick is done, and everything to do with the art of doing it. The tactics of leadership are easy. The art is the diffcult part.

Adam Gopnik quotes Swiss as saying, “Magic only happens in a spectator’s mind. Everything else is a distraction…. Methods for their own sake are a distraction. You cannot cross over into the world of magic until you put everything else aside and behind you—including your own desires and needs—and focus on bringing an experience to the audience. This is magic. Nothing else.” Substitute “leadership” for “magic” and there you are.

Leadership is very much an art, one that’s accomplished only by people with authentic generosity and a visceral connection to their tribe. Learning the trick won’t do you any good if you haven’t made a commitment first.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

It seems as though we rarely get to see leadership in action. We tend to notice it after the fact or after it’s gathered steam. That’s because it starts where we least expect it.

In industry after industry, the market leader isn’t the one who develops the innovation that turns the industry upside down. In organization after organization, real leadership rarely comes from the CEO or the senior VP of leadership. Instead, it happens out of the corner of your eye, in a place you weren’t watching.

Criticizing Hope Is Easy  

And in the end, cynicism is a lousy strategy.

Hope without a strategy doesn’t generate leadership. Leadership comes when your hope and your optimism are matched with a concrete vision of the future and a way to get there. People won’t follow you if they don’t believe you can get to where you say you’re going.

Managers are the cynical ones. Managers are pessimists because they’ve seen it before and they believe they’ve already done it as well as it can be done. Leaders, on the other hand, have hope. Without it, there is no future to work for.

The Naked Violinist

Tasmin Little is a violin prodigy who has managed to keep her career going long after many others have faded. As one of the great violinists working today, she has had concert tours and booking agents and a record deal.

Her new record, though, is free. It’s online at http://www.tasminlittle.org.uk and you can listen to all of it, along with commentary and notes, for free.

Tasmin is leading a movement. She is investing time and energy in a committed, consistent effort to spread classical music. She didn’t just upload an MP3 file. She regularly visits prisons and small towns and schools to perform. She adds value to her site in addition to the music. She’s not a dilettante; she’s a leader.

I have no doubt that her original idea was met with resistance or even derision. Too many sacred cows, too much status in the status quo. Even as she persisted, her initial efforts were unlikely to have met with universal acclaim, with worldwide publicity and huge applause. Only her focus and drive and commitment made it work.

Writing Songs That Spread

My friend Jacqueline tells the story of how Unicef spent a fortune creating posters to promote the idea of child vaccination to the mothers of Rwanda. “The posters were gorgeous—photographs with women and children with simple messages written in Kinyarwandan (the local language), about the importance of vaccinating every child. They were perfect, except for the fact with a female illiteracy rate exceeding 70 percent, words written in perfect Kinyarwandan made little difference.” Jacqueline noticed that the way messages spread in Rwanda was by song. One group of women would sing a song for other women, both as a way of spreading ideas and as a gift. No song, no message.

Your tribe communicates. They probably don’t do it the way you would; they don’t do it as efficiently as you might like, but they communicate. The challenge for the leader is to help your tribe sing, whatever form that song takes.

The X Prize  

Peter Diamandis wanted to energize the tribe of inventors, financiers, and explorers who might pursue new solutions for space flight. Rather than blindly following the limited leadership that NASA provided, he decided to offer the X Prize, a $10 million award for the first team that could put a rocket one hundred kilometers into space successfully, twice in two weeks.

The team that won spent more than $20 million to collect the prize. All told, a simple act of leadership generated an investment by the dozens of teams that competed that was greater than ten times more than the prize itself. But more important, it generated a brand-new field, with new participants and a new sort of community.

Peter told me that when he first broached the idea, everyone thought it was stupid. He had no instant support, no one applauding or eager to sign up at first blush. It was his leadership and commitment that made it occur, not the idea itself (which was nothing but an update of the prize that Lindbergh won more than half a century earlier). The idea wasn’t the point. Organizing the tribe was.

Who Cares?

Caring is the key emotion at the center of the tribe. Tribe members care what happens, to their goals and to one another. Many organizations are unable to answer the question “Who cares?” because in fact, no one really does. No one really cares if the menu changes or if the percentage of fund-raising income used for overhead changes. No one really cares if the widget’s color is changed or if the flight is staffed with a different crew.

If no one cares, then you have no tribe. If you don’t care—really and deeply care—then you can’t possibly lead.

The Elements of Leadership

Leaders challenge the status quo.

Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture.

Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change.

Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers.

Leaders communicate their vision of the future.

Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment.

Leaders connect their followers to one another.

Sorry for the alliteration, but that’s the way it worked out.

If you consider the leaders in your organization or community, you’ll see that every one of them uses some combination of these seven elements. You don’t have to be in charge or powerful or pretty or connected to be a leader. You do have to be committed.

Understanding Charisma

Think about the charismatic leaders you’ve encountered. They might be young or old, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, extroverted or shy. In fact, the only thing they seem to have in common is that they are leaders.

I think most people have it upside down. Being charismatic doesn’t make you a leader. Being a leader makes you charismatic.

There are leaders with speech impediments and a fear of public speaking. Leaders way down the corporate ladder and leaders with no money or obvious trappings of power. There are ugly leaders too, so charisma certainly isn’t about being attractive.

It’s easy to give in to your fear and tell yourself that you don’t have what it takes to lead. Mostly, people give up when they get to the charisma part of the checklist. “I wasn’t born charismatic, not like those other guys, so I guess I’ll just settle for following.” The flaw in this reasoning is that those other guys weren’t born charismatic either. It’s a choice, not a gift.

Ronald Reagan’s Secret

What most people want in a leader is something that’s very difficult to find: we want someone who listens.

Why is it so hard to find a leader who can listen?

Because it’s easy to confuse listening to individuals with “going with the crowd” or “following the polls.” It’s easy for a leader with a vision to give up on listening because, after all, most people want you to be average, and that doesn’t get you anywhere. If Henry Ford had listened, the old saying goes, we’d have better buggy whips today, not cars.

The secret, Reagan’s secret, is to listen, to value what you hear, and then to make a decision even if it contradicts the very people you are listening to. Reagan impressed his advisers, his adversaries, and his voters by actively listening. People want to be sure you heard what they said—they’re less focused on whether or not you do what they said.

When Graham Weston, executive chairman of Rackspace, wanted to persuade his talented and somewhat skittish staff to move with him to the new headquarters in a depressed area of town, he didn’t lecture them or even try to cajole them. All he did was listen. He met with every one of the employees who was hesitating about the move and let them air their views. That’s what it took to lead them: he listened.

Listen, really listen. Then decide and move on.

The Forces of Mediocrity

Maybe it should be “the forces for mediocrity.”

There’s a myth that all you need to do is outline your vision and prove it’s right—then, quite suddenly, people will line up and support you.

In fact, the opposite is true. Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths—whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it’s over.

If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it and your work would ultimately be devalued. The yin and yang are clear: without people pushing against your quest to do something worth talking about, it’s unlikely to be worth the journey. Persist.

How to Sell a Book (or Any New Idea)

My friend Fred has a new book coming out and he was trolling around for marketing ideas. I think he’d be surprised at this one: Sell one.

Find one person who trusts you and sell him a copy. Does he love it? Is he excited about it? Excited enough to tell ten friends because it helps them, not because it helps you?

Tribes grow when people recruit other people. That’s how ideas spread as well. The tribe doesn’t do it for you, of course. They do it for each other. Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work. If Fred’s book spreads, then he’s off to a great start. If it doesn’t, he needs a new book or a better platform.

Hard Just Got Easy

…and vice versa.

It used to be really hard to plow the field, really hard to find the steel needed to build a car, and really hard to get a package from New York to Cleveland on time for a reasonable price.

It used to be really hard to get a new company funded and really hard to get shelf space so consumers could find your product. It used to be really hard to run a factory.

Those things are easy now. They might cost more than we’d like, but you can put them on a checklist and they’ll get done.

What’s hard now is breaking the rules. What’s hard is finding the faith to become a heretic, to seek out an innovation and then, in the face of huge amounts of resistance, to lead a team and to push the innovation out the door into the world.

Successful people are the ones who are good at this.

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the most prestigious in the world, went looking for a new conductor, they had their pick of perhaps a thousand qualified individuals. These were world-class people who had been tested and proved at doing the work of running an orchestra the traditional way.

They hired Gustavo Dudamel.

He is a twenty-six-year-old sensation from Venezuela whose résumé can’t compare to those of his elder peers. He doesn’t have the proven abilities at doing yesterday’s hard work. The Los Angeles Philharmonic realized, though, that they could always find someone to get that work done. What they needed was a leader to bring the organization to a new audience in a new way.

Stop for a second and consider the implications of this decision. From a thousand qualified conductors (who understood the status quo), the Philharmonic chose a newbie who wanted to challenge it. Heretics discover this sort of success all the time.

Which Would You Prefer: Trial or Error?

It’s a myth that change happens overnight, that right answers succeed in the marketplace right away, or that big ideas happen in a flash.

They don’t. It’s always (almost always, anyway) a matter of accretion. Drip, drip, drip. Improvements happen a bit at a time, not as grand-slam home runs that are easy to get.

Four million iPhones later (that’s more than a billion dollars in less than a year), it’s easy to forget that pundit Laura Reis said the Apple phone would never succeed. Visa and MasterCard were huge ideas that took years to take off. Even little things, like that restaurant with a line out the door—it didn’t open that way.

If your organization requires success before commitment, it will never have either.

Part of leadership (a big part of it, actually) is the ability to stick with the dream for a long time. Long enough that the critics realize that you’re going to get there one way or another…so they follow.

Positive Deviants

How do you manage leaders?

Given that leaders can appear anywhere in an organization, it seems to me that the job of senior management is to find them and support them. Leaders have tribes of their own, and someone needs to lead those tribes.

Which leads to the idea of positive deviance.

As a general rule, managers don’t like deviants. By definition, deviance from established standards is a failure for a manager working to deliver on spec. So, most of the time, most managers work hard to stamp out deviance (and the deviants who create it).

Managers stamp out deviants. That’s what they do.

Leaders understand a different calculus. Leaders understand that change is not only omnipresent, but the key to success.

And it turns out that employees who are committed to change and engaged in making things happen are happier and more productive.

Putting these two facts together, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that you desperately need more leaders, more deviants—more agents of change, not fewer.

Great leaders embrace deviants by searching for them and catching them doing something right.

This is the life’s work of Jerry Sternin.

Sternin went to Vietnam to try to help starving children. Rather than importing tactics that he knew would work, or outside techniques that he was sure could make a difference, he sought out the few families who weren’t starving, the few moms who weren’t just getting by but were thriving. And then he made it easy for these mothers to share their insights with the rest of the group.

This seems obvious, but it’s heretical. The idea that an aid worker would go to a village in trouble and not try to stamp out nonstandard behavior is crazy.

“The traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work,” he told Fast Company. “It never has. You can’t bring permanent solutions in from outside.” Leveraging the work of Marian Zeitlin, Sternin and his wife Monique have taken this approach around the world, from developing countries to hospitals in Connecticut.

Over and over again, the Sternins have discovered a simple process: find leaders (the heretics who are doing things differently and making change), and then amplify their work, give them a platform, and help them find followers—and things get better. They always get better.

I hope that’s not so simple that it gets ignored, because it’s important. It’s such an effective idea that it saves children’s lives every day. All the Sternins did was find the mom with the healthy kids. And then they helped the others in the village notice what she was doing. They gave that mom a spotlight, encouraging her to keep it up and, more important, encouraging others to follow her lead.

It’s simple, but it works. It might be the most important practical idea in this entire book.

The Obligation

Not too far from us, a few blocks away, there are kids without enough to eat and without parents who care. A little farther away, hours by plane, are people unable to reach their goals because they live in a community that just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support them. A bit farther away are people being brutally persecuted by their governments. And the world is filled with people who can’t go to high school, never mind college, and who certainly can’t spend their time focused on whether or not they get a good parking space at work.

And so, the obligation: don’t settle.

To have all these advantages, all this momentum, all these opportunities and then settle for mediocre and then defend the status quo and then worry about corporate politics—what a waste.

Flynn Berry wrote that you should never use the word “opportunity.” It’s not an opportunity, it’s an obligation.

I don’t think we have any choice. I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game, and to play it better than anyone has any right to believe is possible.

Where Credit Is Due

I’m frequently asked about getting credit. People want to know how to be sure they get credit for an idea, especially when they have a boss who wants to steal it. Or they want to know how to be sure to give me credit for an idea in a book or blog post of their own.

Real leaders don’t care.

If it’s about your mission, about spreading the faith, about seeing something happen, not only do you not care about credit, you actually want other people to take credit.

If you want to program your Web site with the cutting-edge tool called Ruby on Rails, feel free. The software is freely available. And you don’t have to credit the guys at 37 Signals who developed it. You can just use it.

That’s fine with them, because they’re not trying to get credit or earn a living from the programming language. Enough people know it was their work; enough people seek them out and respect them for the work they’ve done. The more the language spreads, the farther the movement they started goes. And that’s the real goal.

There’s no record of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi whining about credit. Credit isn’t the point. Change is.

The Big Yes

Rene Hromek wrote to me about the BIG YES. (The capital letters are part of the deal.) Let’s contrast the BIG YES with the “little no.” The little no is easy to find and hard to avoid. The little no feels safe. It’s like swatting a gnat. The little no avoids a distraction, keeps you away from a possible hassle. There are tons of little no’s everywhere we look.

The BIG YES, on the other hand, is about leadership and apparent risk. Mostly, it’s about leverage. Today, more than ever, the BIG YES is available to every person lucky enough take it.


Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Leaders create things that didn’t exist before. They do this by giving the tribe a vision of something that could happen, but hasn’t (yet).

You can’t manage without knowledge. You can’t lead without imagination.

Fierce Protection

When Matt Groening was making The Simpsons Movie, the studio heads relentlessly pushed him to include paid product placements in it—more than had been in any movie ever before. The execs explained that while the extreme product placement would be insanely profitable, it would also be seen as a joke. The audience, apparently, would think it hysterically funny that the studio profited by jamming in as many placements as possible.

If Matt hadn’t dug in his heels and resisted, the movie would have been ruined. Compromise may expedite a project, but compromise can kill it as well.


People don’t believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends tell them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.

Why Not You, Why Not Now?

The barriers to leadership have fallen. There are tribes everywhere, many in search of leaders. Which creates a dilemma for you: without a barrier, why not begin?

Simple example: ten years ago, if you wanted to publish a book, you needed to find a publisher that would say yes. No publisher, no book.

Today, of course, you can publish a book all by yourself. Just visit Lulu.com and you’re done.

Without someone to say yes, all that’s left are unpublished writers who tell themselves no.

Leadership is now like that. 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.

Let’s continue for a minute, then, and think about when.

Do you have what you need to lead? Do you need more power or education or money? When will you have enough of what you need in order to start leading a tribe?

If someone gave you two weeks to give that speech or write that manifesto or make that decision, would that be enough time? If two weeks aren’t enough, are four or twelve or a thousand?

In my experience, leaders don’t need to wait. There’s no correlation between money, power, or education and successful leadership. None. John McCain was fifth in his class (from the bottom) at the United States Naval Academy. Howard Schultz sold kitchen gadgets and ended up at an underfunded three-store coffee bean chain before he turned it into Starbucks. Ghandi was a lawyer in South Africa. Waiting doesn’t pay. Saying yes does.

The Perfect Fallacy

Quality is not only not necessary, for many items it’s undesirable.

If we define quality as regularly meeting the measured specifications for an item, then quality matters a lot for something like a pacemaker. It doesn’t matter at all for a $3,000 haute couture dress.

More fashion = less need for quality.

Perfect is an illusion, one that was created to maintain the status quo. The Six Sigma charade is largely about hiding from change, because change is never perfect. Change means reinvention, and until something is reinvented, we have no idea what the spec is.

Yahoo and the Peanut Butter Memo

Brad Garlinghouse probably saved Yahoo (for a while, anyway). Either way, he found his tribe.

In 2006, Brad acted like a heretic. He wrote a pointed memo to his bosses at Yahoo, outlining what he saw as flaws in the company strategy, upending the company religion and describing a vision for the future. The purpose of the memo was to incite a tiny tribe, the group that ran his company with him.

The memo got leaked.

It was featured in the Wall Street Journal and reprinted across the Web. Suddenly, Brad was no longer just a little-known but important senior manager at Yahoo. He was every wannabe heretic’s nightmare. He was in trouble.

The guys in the balloon factory hold up moments like that as warnings to the unicorn. “Be careful,” they say, “or you’ll get into trouble.” The thing is, Brad’s memo started a chain of events that led to CEO Terry Semel’s departure and to big changes at Yahoo. It also led to an even bigger job for Brad.

What Do You Have to Lose?

Brad didn’t leak the memo, but he did have the chutzpah to share a very honest appraisal with his bosses. If Brad had gotten fired, there were dozens of other (yes, I’m willing to say better) companies that would have given him the opportunity to work with them instead. The worst that would have happened is that he would have ended up with a better job. If the memo had worked (which it did), he would have had a better place to work and have done the right thing, not just for the shareholders but for his career.

After gaining credibility, paying his dues, doing the work, and earning trust, Brad had absolutely nothing to lose by writing that memo. It was hard, no doubt about it, but it was worth it.

What are you waiting for?

Case Study: No Kill

Nathan Winograd has no authority, he’s not in charge of anything, and he can’t make people do what he wants.

And yet, shelter by shelter, town by town, Nathan is changing the way millions of dogs and cats are treated. Not by fiat or by legislation, but by leading the tribe.

Every year, about five million healthy dogs and cats are destroyed (killed) by shelters in the United States. In some shelters, the number is as high as 90 percent of all the animals handled. Nathan can’t abide this, and many people agree with him. Yet the conventional wisdom (and the established tribe) made it clear that there’s no way to get all those pets adopted, especially the older, uncute pets. Where would they all go? The tribe in power saw no alternative.

Starting with one shelter in one city, Winograd’s mentor, Richard Avanzino, led them. He showed them that it could be done, and that the status quo didn’t have to stay the way it was.

Avanzino implemented programs that seem like common sense but were, at the time, controversial. The San Francisco SPCA started spaying and neutering animals before adoption. They set up a foster home program (many dogs entered foster care and never came back). He even filled a van with pets and hit the road, looking for families willing to take a pet.

When Avanzino presented his results to other shelters at a conference, some attendees got up and walked out. They represented the status quo, and this tribe wasn’t ready to change.

The next step is extraordinary: Avanzino took the San Francisco SPCA out of the business of capturing and killing pets, he walked away from a huge city contract, and he encouraged any staff members who didn’t share his vision to get out and find a new job instead. He grew a new tribe, found new people with a new attitude, and led them.

Within a few years, his nascent organization had a surplus of millions of dollars. From this base, Avanzino tried to pass a law in San Francisco requiring the city pound to transfer all its healthy animals to the SPCA instead of killing them. What happened next is astonishing but true: major humane and vegetarian organizations came to the hearings to argue against the law. They said it was impossible. They said that if people thought their pets would be adopted instead of killed, they’d be more likely to abandon them (!).

So how did Avanzino get the law passed? How did his efforts to save tens of thousands of small animals succeed? Simple. His new tribe did it. The public did it. Avanzino found a group (a large group) that wanted to hear his story, that wanted to follow, that wanted to take action. By 1995, San Francisco was a No Kill city. Every healthy pet was adopted, not killed.

The story continues with Winograd. After Avanzino left San Francisco, the SPCA started to lose its nerve. Leadership flagged. They cancelled their free neutering program and started to compromise their values. Disgusted, Winograd left.

He ended up at the Tompkins County SPCA in rural New York State. Basically, he was the dog catcher, with a small budget (one that was in debt), a run-down facility, and a staff who represented the old way of doing things.

Winograd followed many of the steps you’ve read about in this book. He didn’t compromise. The very first day on the job, he refused to kill (not euthanize or put down or put to sleep, but kill) the animals under his care. He was clear and vivid in talking with his staff and within months, half of them (the ones who didn’t want to join the tribe) had left.

Nathan Winograd understood that without followers, there is no leadership. So he went directly to his public. To people who wanted to hear his story. To citizens who wanted to follow. In one year, more than four hundred media stories were written about his shelter. Donations poured in. Volunteers showed up (two hundred volunteers providing twelve thousand hours of work). In an industry where 10 or 20 percent of the animals involved are adopted, Tompkins regularly adopted out more than 85 percent, with only very sick or aggressive animals not making it.

And it wasn’t a fluke. Winograd did it again in Charlottesville, Virginia. Then, after establishing a tribe, he moved to Reno, Nevada, and did it one more time. Each time with no real budget and no real power. Just with leadership.

When people hear this story, something clicks. First, the outrage that behind our backs millions of dogs and cats are killed as a matter of course. Second, the pride that one person on a mission could make such a huge difference. And third, the realization that if Nathan Winograd can change a horrible century-old tradition from the bottom up, we can too.

There are tribes out there, just waiting to be coalesced and led. All they need is a dedicated leader eager to do the right thing.

I was moved by Nathan’s story. Moved by the way he pushed himself to make a difference for animals that had no chance to speak up against the status quo. Moved by his ability to see the future and make it real. And most of all, moved by his ability to mobilize a tribe and to do it in a way in which every person involved came out ahead.

The Look of the Leader

What does a leader look like?

I’ve met leaders all over the world, on several continents, and in every profession. I’ve met young leaders and old ones, leaders with big tribes and tiny ones.

I can tell you this: leaders have nothing in common.

They don’t share gender or income level or geography. There’s no gene, no schooling, no parentage, no profession. In other words, leaders aren’t born. I’m sure of it.

Actually, they do have one thing in common. Every tribe leader I’ve ever met shares one thing: the decision to lead.

What, Exactly, Should You Do Now?

You made it to the end. And it’s possible you missed the checklists, the detailed how-to lists, and the For Dummies– style instruction manual that shows you exactly what to do to find a tribe and lead it.

I think that was the point.

I can tell you that I’m going to get a lot of flak from most people about what you’ve just read. People might say that it’s too disorganized or not practical enough or that I require you to do too much work to actually accomplish anything. That’s okay. In fact, criticism like that almost always accompanies change.

Every tribe is different. Every leader is different. The very nature of leadership is that you’re not doing what’s been done before. If you were, you’d be following, not leading.

All I can hope for is that you’ll make a choice. Every leader I’ve ever met has made the choice, and they’ve been glad they did.

You can choose to lead, or not. You can choose to have faith, or not. You can choose to contribute to the tribe, or not.

Are there thousands of reasons why you, of all people, aren’t the right one to lead? Why you don’t have the resources or the authority or the genes or the momentum to lead? Probably. So what? You still get to make the choice.

Once you choose to lead, you’ll be under huge pressure to reconsider your choice, to compromise, to dumb it down, or to give up. Of course you will. That’s the world’s job: to get you to be quiet and follow. The status quo is the status quo for a reason.

But once you choose to lead, you’ll also discover that it’s not so difficult. That the options available to you seem really clear, and that yes, in fact, you can get from here to there.


One Last Thing

May I ask you a favor?

If you got anything out of this book, if you highlighted or circled or Post-it-ed, I’m hoping you’ll do something for me:

Give this copy to someone else.

Ask them to read it. Beg them to make a choice about leadership.

We need them. We need you.

Spread the word.


“I’m not sure where I’m going. I’ll lead!”


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