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.  Everyone 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’ve 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.

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. :::

Great Leaders Reward Merit

Life as a nomad on the steppes of Central Asia must have been grim in the year 1200.  

The climate is cold and dry.  You would spend everyday seeking grass for your animals to eat.  You hoped another tribe didn’t destroy your tribe and take your children as slaves.

Your tribe was everything.  They protected you, and helped you acquire resources for survival.  

That is the world into which Temüjin was born.  His father was chief of the ruling clan of the Mongols, but when his father was killed by a rival clan, Temüjin’s family was ostracized and he himself became a slave. 

He escaped, and rebuilt a clan.  But when he was elected head of a tribe, he departed from tradition.  He promoted leaders based on merit and loyalty, not only on blood.  Eventually he became head of all Mongol clans and became Genghis Khan.  

Temüjin means “blacksmith”.* The name fits: he was able to forge an empire from his slave beginnings.  He enjoyed extraordinary loyalty from his followers, and together they built an empire stretching from the Pacific ocean to Southern Europe.  

Genghis Khan is not the only leader to create a meritocracy.  But it is far too uncommon.  Everyone claims to hire and promote based on merit, but they don’t.  We hire people who look and act like ourselves. A 2012 study** indicated that we hire by homophily: we hire people who share our interests, characteristics, and background.  

My book uses Genghis Khan as an example more than for once, because the Mongols built an incredible institution, the largest contiguous empire in world history.  Note: I am not pro-genocide.  But we can learn from those who are, just as we can from others.


*Glasse, Cyril; Smith, Huston (January 2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam. p. 313. ISBN 978-0-7591-0190-6.

**Rivera, L. A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms. American sociological review77(6), 999-1022.

Great Leaders Tell Great Stories

Medieval nobles were horrible, violent people.  They would beat peasants for fun and trample crops of poor people during their jousting matches.  They burned peasant homes for sport.  Why?  Because they could.  They were the warrior class and had the weapons.  

In the early middle ages, a knight was someone who had money to buy armor and weapons.  Eventually, knights came to be considered a lower tier of the nobility, and titles became hereditary.  But they were still usually uncouth.  They mistreated women and exhibited terrible dining manners.  

The Catholic church tried to remedy the situation with two programs, the Peace of God and the Truce of God.  At the Council of Charroux, the Peace of God was proclaimed in 989.  It called for protection of church property and clerics and of cropland.  The Truce of God was proclaimed in 1027, and called for limits on which days the nobility could engage in violence.  

Peace and Truce of God may have been temporarily useful in some cases, but overall is considered to have been a failure.  Peace & Truce tried to cover too many people on too many topics, as mission creep added in multiple rules (such as treatment of orphans, widows, and animals etc.). But it would have been unsuccessful anyway.  Nobles don’t like to be told what they cannot do.  Also, the rule books were written in Latin, and most nobles could barely read their local languages.  

Peace & Truce 2.0 was much more successful.  It was called Chivalry. This was a system designed to encourage nobles, especially knights, from mistreating everyone.  It was successful because (1) it was written in local languages, (2) it told them things they could do, rather than not do (romance, etc.) and (3) it employed stories.

Most knights forgot they weren’t allowed to kill peasants on Thursdays.  But they remembered the tales of Lancelot.  

Stories should offer opportunity

Instead of saying “you can’t rape villagers on Tuesdays,” the program offered the opportunity to be heroes.  They could rescue villagers from dragons.  Your stories should suggest more opportunity than punishment. 

Stories should be in the language of the hearer

Jesus used stories of farmers planting and harvesting.  It was effective for millenia. But now, people think grocery stores magically manufacture food.  Use the words your people understand.  Use the images they understand. 

Stories should be entertaining enough to be memorable

People remember the frightening dragons and the beautiful Guinevere.  People don’t remember “sales targets in the eastern region will increase by 2.43%” phrases. 

Stories should make the lessons clear

After the chivalric program was implemented and knights read the stories, they knew they should treat women well, eat politely at the dinner table, and help people instead of hurting them.  It was clear.  If you want to be like Lancelot, be good.

Leadership and Alliances

During World War I, the British Navy killed an estimated 750,000 civilians—normal people—by starving them to death with a blockade.  That is just one estimate, but even 10% of that number is unimaginably heinous.

The lesson of the day: Choose your allies carefully.

In the early 1900s, Germany felt alone in the world.  They wanted friends.  They needed alliances to help them feel safe in the new order.  The country  sought an alliance with Great Britain, but was rebuffed.  Everyone else seemed wary of Germany’s participation in the industrial revolution, and they also rebuffed Germany.

So Germany teamed up with Austro-Hungary.

Then the Austro-Hungarian empire pulled Germany into the Great War, a protracted war of attrition.  The country was devastated in a way that led to the rise of Hitler and National Socialism.

Often, the Balance of Power concept pops up in the multinational business arena also.  In the corporate world, confederations proliferate.  Caterpillar and Mitsubishi teamed up in the 1960s.  Other firms share customers or research or distribution channels to combine competencies.  Apple and Microsoft might plot to counter Google’s power.

This is especially true if your company is small, or if you are managing only one team.  Your organization can’t do everything alone, so you should make alliances.  Just be careful whom you choose.  Be both proactive and careful and purposeful. Don’t just let it happen.

An individual can end up in a long-term relationship with someone because that person was sitting on a bar stool near their own stool.  Organizations make the same mistake.

Don’t join forces with a firm whose platform might soon become obsolete.  Avoid those focused on stealing your knowhow in exchange for simple introductions to government regulators.  Say no to those with outdated views of the market or of the world.

Be purposeful in choosing friends, spouses, and corporate partners.

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

%d bloggers like this: