People Are Stupid But Harmless

It is very embarrassing to share, but this incident changed my understanding of how the world works.  

When I was in high school, I was a member of the Disco Club.  I learned all the moves.  I wore elephant bell jeans: the cuffs slapped each other everywhere I walked, providing everyone a distant warning of my approach.  I wore silky polyester shirts with at least two buttons open.  

Then, suddenly, the disco era ended.  

In an instant, my wardrobe switched to cotton.  Mainly Izod.  My music allegiance immediately transferred from the BeeGees to the B-52s. From disco to punk.  My entire value system quickly shifted.  The world’s crazy suddenly stopped, and we bought button-down collar shirts.

Now I know that about myself, and it is a part of myself I don’t like.  But the most disturbing part is that it wasn’t only me.  EVERYONE I knew did the same thing.  Everyon in my world instantly changed what they believed to be true.  They followed fashion, not principles.

But ever since that incident, I have been less alarmed by weird movements.  Alarming political trends, demagogues, disturbing fashions, and outbreaks of mass hysteria don’t stress me.  I have been alive long enough to know that the world will eventually flip back.

Do you suffer from insomnia because of a politician or some moral trend? Don’t worry, stupid will soon be replaced by another type of stupid. Relax. People are fickle in their stupidity.

Great Leaders Feel Deserving

Many potential leaders never reach greatness because they feel they lack a mandate to lead.

Consider the case of Babur.

Babur ascended the throne of Fergana in in what is now Uzbekistan.   It was 1494, when Spain was claiming Caribbean islands, and Babur was only 12 years old.   At age 14 he led his forces to conquer Samarkand.   Soon after, he lost Fergana, his original holding.  Attempting to reconquer Fergana, he lost control of both.

Five years later, Babur tried to capture both again and failed.  He should have become a tent maker, or used his influence to amass wealth along the silk road trade, which passed through the region.   But he was the grandson of Timur (aka Tamerlane).   It was his right to lead.

So Babur turned his attention southward.

He invaded northern India, and built the Mughal empire.   It lasted until the British Raj in 1858.

The Muslim presence in India facilitated the export of Indian knowledge to Europe and the Arab world.   This included mathematics.

Mathematics made commerce and industry possible.   It made the technology revolution possible.

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A common cause of failure to launch is what psychologists call Imposter Syndrome.  Many people fear others will discover their inadequacies.   “Only a matter of time before people figure out I’m a fraud, that I’m only pretending to be talented.”   Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls) calls it the Fraud Police.

You probably are faking it a little.   Everyone is.   You must be courageous anyway.   We have to be comfortable with not being completely adequate, because no one is adequate.

Be like Babur.   Be a tenacious, entitled brat.   Just a little.   And eventually you will become the leader you need to be.   Then you’ll change the world.

Be Inclusive

(This post is part of my series on leadership lessons in history.)

The Roman empire promoted locals in conquered lands to trusted positions within the empire.  George Washington could have never become prime minister in England.  But in an earlier age he could have become a Roman senator (Peter Drucker has observed).

symbolsBecause of this practice, people felt like part of the empire, not subjects.  They were stakeholders rather than slaves.

The culture of inclusion was pervasive.  Centuries after the fall of Rome, many people still thought of themselves as Roman citizens.


Maybe you are governing a non-profit that employs mostly volunteers.  Maybe you are managing the integration of a corporate merger.  In either case, you must make people feel they are vital parts of the organization.  Help them to feel like citizens rather than hirelings.

Rome didn’t make people feel like citizens by claiming “people are our greatest asset.”  The empire had a policy of promoting the best, regardless of geography.

When I was a consultant in Asia, I observed that British companies were sometimes more successful that their French counterparts because they hired and promoted locals.  French firms often insisted that the smartest people were all French, so only French nationals could hold executive posts.   I was told that it was the heritage of the two colonial eras.  Top colonial posts were always occupied by French nationals, but locals could be promoted in British colonies.


Equating inclusion only with skin color is a missed opportunity.  A potentially greater strategy: promoting people from diverse geographies, unrelated corporate divisions, and unconventional educational backgrounds.

Better Leaders Recruit Variety

The Parsi have lived in India for a long time.  Many centuries.  They still tell a legend of their journey to become one of India’s ethnic groups.  

The Parsi were Zoastrians living in Persia.  Zoastrianism had been the main religion for 1,050 years, but when Arabs invaded and Islam became predominant, Parsi adherents became outsiders in their own country.  They wanted to maintain their cultural distinctness, so packed their suitcases.  They wandered and arrived in India.

A Hindu king initially refused to allow their settling.  To illustrate his situation, the king showed them a bowl full to the brim of milk, and said it would overflow if more milk were added.  

Parsi leaders responded by pouring sugar into the milk, which was absorbed and did not overflow the bowl.  The sugar also adds sweetness, they said.

The king was convinced.

The Parsi still live in India, and still maintain their distinct identity.  Their unique skills, and the connections they had as outsiders, have greatly benefited India’s economy over the centuries.  They have added sweetness.

Smart outsiders have improved other economies and cultural ecosystems.  Jews in Europe and Chinese in Southeast Asia built economies, to the benefit of locals.  

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Suggestion:  as a leader, you should bring in outsiders from other cultures.  Let them maintain their distinctiveness rather than mainstreaming them.  They will add flavor and improve connection opportunities with the outside.  

If your diversity strategy involves hiring people who differ only in the way they look, but who graduated from the same business school as yourself, you might be missing an opportunity to accomplish great things.   

I’ve done research on this.  Serious research, experimental designs with groups   (paper publication pending).  Social scientists don’t agree.  Some research claims diverse groups are more creative, and other research posits that diverse groups are ineffective.  So I spent two years experimenting.  It turns out that the optimal combination is a group of similar people who are similar, but who have all spent significant time interacting with other cultures.  

Kiss a Leper: Leadership and Self-Contrarianism

This post is part of my leadership lessons from history series.


Leadership requires courage of conviction. Working up to that strength requires overcoming your personal fears.


The Franciscans are a Catholic order that is impressive by many standards.  They somehow continually convince people (currently 14,000 friars) to give up every personal comfort.  They sponsor numerous universities.  They are respected by people of many faiths.  Their influence is felt around the world.

This global organization started with a leader who was a truly remarkable man.

Francis attracted followers simply through the force of his personal conviction.  He always did what he believed was right, which attracted people to his cause.

Francis felt that God told him to do the opposite of what he had done and felt in the past.  He became a self-contrarian.

He was raised in wealth, so he chose to eschew money.  His father taught him to care for assets, so he tossed all personal possessions.

In one story, Francis had an intense aversion to those with leprosy.  He could not even look at lepers, and avoided areas where they lived.  He was one day riding a horse and passed a leper.  He dismounted and kissed the leper on the lips.  (In another version of the story, he kissed the leper’s hand.)  Through this act, Francis was able to overcome his revulsion and happily live among lepers.


To become a great leader and start a movement lasting hundreds of years, maybe you should also become self-contrarianism.

Try doing the opposite of what you have always been taught to do.  Only make decisions with sufficient data?  Try following your gut.

Plan each day to the minute?  Allow some spontaneity once a week.

Have a policy against hiring uneducated people?  Embrace real diversity by hiring someone without a degree.

Prepare extensively for important meetings?  Try opening up a meeting to someone else’s agenda.

Generate ideas through brainstorming meetings?  Try accepting the research that proves brainstorming is ineffective, and try crowdsourcing or individual idea generation or idea contests or word-association games.

What is the ONE thing you most fear?  Phone prospecting?  Arising early to exercise?  Speaking in public?  Talking about your feelings?

Do that thing now and get it over with.


::: Be fierce. Be kind. Be knowledge-hungry. :::