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. :::

My Former Life as a Secret Agent

I have never told anyone this.
When I was 9 years old, I experienced a stressful event which caused me to partially withdraw from society.  I built around me a cocoon of imagination.  My whole life was fake.
I imagined I was a secret agent.
For some reason, my country needed a small boy with no athletic ability and no skills to save them.   Enemy soldiers had infiltrated our land, and I–only I–could stop them.
Sometimes soldiers entered my classroom to seize me.  After winning a gun battle across desks, I would escape.  I jumped out the window to draw off any remaining enemies, to keep my classmates safe.
I lived to fight another day.  (Spoiler alert: because I am typing this now, you know I did not die)
The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler called this Compensatory Fantasy.  We all have weaknesses.  But instead of overcoming them, some people retreat into fantasy.

I am concerned about the current wave of superhero films.  They can be fun for most people. But for some people, the films provide escape from creating a life.  So can video games.

My plea: don’t spend too much effort in building a game avatar or an imaginary persona.   Instead, build your own real-life skills.
Once you have found your passion, invest in becoming expert at that passion.

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

Want to live longer?

I am in Japan this week, meeting creative people.  I interacted with a really interesting person by chance.

Across the alley from the apartment where I am staying, I was awoken early in the morning by an old man banging on a pot with a hammer.

Determining a Japanese person’s age is difficult, but this guy was really old. He might have been born before Japan opened to the outside world in the 1860s.  I’m not sure.

6E046D1D-6D5D-4F5B-AEF1-D0EFA119322EThe old man procures old cookware that has been cast out, and repairs it all.  He beats out the dents and straightens where it is bent.  Then he apparently tries to sell them.  It is all done in a simple workplace  in his family’s garage.

Japan is a rich country by any measure.  No one needs to buy recycled pot and pans.  Affordable cookware is easily accessible.  But the man’s family realizes that meaningful work is key to keeping him alive and vibrant.

As you plan your retirement, have you focused on financial planning?  Hopefully you have also planned ways to make substantive alterations.  If not, retirement could bring rapid decline in health.  Retirement is stressful and can mean an end to meaningful contributions.  A Harvard study indicates that compared to those who keep working, retired individuals are 40 percent more likely to suffer heart attack or stroke.


Four recommendations from the study are (1) forging new social networks, (2) playing, (3) being creative, and (4) continued learning.  My advice: even if you are young, plan now.  Develop a system that will allow you to make a substantive creative contributions now and into old age.

Should you go back to college or university?

Will your career be advanced by going back to school?  Maybe, maybe not.

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Do you wish you had earned a degree when you were younger?

Do you feel left out of conversations when people quote Jane Austen?  Do you wish you could use historical examples from the Peloponesian War?

Many people feel the allure of a piece of paper certifying university graduation.  I understand the attraction.

I believe that a well-rounded education significantly improves our lives.  It makes us better citizens, better problem solvers, and more interesting people.  I  believe it makes us more resilient by exposing us to the experiences of various people and cultures.  It gives us more information for options in designing our lives.

But it doesn’t necessarily bring more money.

Have you ever met a middle-aged person who was professionally stuck, then enrolled in university—at great sacrifice to present career, family stability, and household budget—graduated, and become tremendously successful?  Neither have I.  It might have happened, but not amongst a few thousand data points in my reference.

But the person often earns less after graduation.  Here is a common scenario: a 40-year-old person feels professionally stuck, and feels angst about having no diploma.  So the person quits a job, perseveres for four years, and begins the on-campus recruiting process.  Recruiters might be impressed, but they generally prefer to hire a person with the same degree from the same university who is 20 years younger.  That choice is perceived as both cheaper and less risky.  An older person might be more experienced, but that experience is four years old.

The return on investment (ROI) of a degree after a certain age is lower than for an 18-year-old.  Worse, the ROI is lower and lower for everyone.  Earning a professional degree in a field with enforced scarcity can improve earning power.  Example: quitting work as a nurse’s aide and earning a nursing degree can earn a positive return.

school decision tree

Are you considering going back to college because you love learning, but are horrified by the cost?  I have advised thousands of careers, and I believe that with few exception, the new degree will not meet expectations.

Rather than quitting employment to study, a person could instead gain new knowledge and skills through night classes, or (less expensively and more flexibly) through lifelong self-directed learning.  With proper guidance, personal development results can be significant.

I’m not anti-education.  See earlier blog posts to see that I believe education is the best way to improve individuals and our world.


Teach yourself to be successful.  Don’t outsource your education.

To Be Creative, Specialize. Or Generalize.

To become creative—to consistently innovate—which strategy is best?  Should you focus expertise in your domain, going deeper?  Or should you be a generalist and learn broadly?

My experience, and research, leads me to believe that both are necessary.

Go Deep

6A52BB6F-9FB5-46F4-8454-24AFE8A29709.jpegYou can’t create a new guitar riff destined to become iconic, if you are not familiar with other great riffs. You should be able to play Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), Iron Man (Black Sabbath), Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns ‘n Roses), Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana), and Satisfaction (Rolling Stones). Only then  can you invent a new one.  Creative solutions are typically developed by people with some expertise in their fields. We call this deep domain knowledge.

Can you develop a new intervention for cancer without years of researching what has already been tried?  I have always wanted to write a fiction bestseller, but I don’t try because I never even read fiction.  (My book on Amazon, from which I still receive royalties, is fictional but really is an allegory).

Go Broad

Innovation, according to Peter Drucker, typically comes through borrowing from other domains (HBR, 2002), however.  The big innovations that grab headlines are often born from converging knowledge types.

Neuroscience tells us that creativity often involves pulling from memories stored in our brains.  When we are faced with a problem, we access the database of experiences and knowledge in our brains and choose one as THE solution.  So the broader your knowledge, the larger the database from which to draw possible answers.

Unfortunately, everyone is becoming more specialized.  People are able to dig very deep into their own fields.  But they are less able to cross-pollinate knowledge from other domains.

If you want to reach creative eminence, make friends with people outside your profession.  Spend time with weird people.