TED Radio Hour
9:36 am
Fri January 17, 2014

Can Ordinary People Become Leaders?

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 1:39 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Disruptive Leadership.

About Seth Godin's TEDTalk

Seth Godin says the Internet has revived the idea of tribes based on shared values and gives ordinary people the power to lead.

About Seth Godin

Seth Godin is an entrepreneur, writer and blogger who focuses on ideas and spreading ideas. After working as a software brand manager in the mid-1980s, Godin started Yoyodyne, one of the first Internet-based direct-marketing firms, based on the idea that companies needed to rethink how they reached customers. Yahoo! bought the company in 1998.

In 2005, Godin founded Squidoo.com, a site where users can share links and information about an idea important to them. Godin has also written several books, including Permission Marketing, All Marketers Are Liars, and Purple Cow.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So that kind of everyday leadership, where does it come from?

SETH GODIN: If you look at Bob Marley's career, he didn't invent the Rastafarians but he certainly led them. And when there is enough need and demand for a leader like that, often but not always, someone stands up and says follow me.

RAZ: This is Seth Godin, by the way, he's a blogger and entrepreneur. And the kinds of leaders Seth is talking about, they need two things. The first is, they need a tribe, a group of people, large or small, who've chosen to come together around a common interest or goal. And then the second thing, a vacuum.

GODIN: When we sense that there's a vacuum at the PTA, or a vacuum, you know, in our local intramural hockey club, or a vacuum in our political party, someone feels enough push that they overcome that internal resistance and say, all right I'll do it. Let's go.

RAZ: Yeah, they just show up.

GODIN: Yeah.

RAZ: Yeah, our local park needed a new playground and there's a volunteer group and I just sort of, like, showed up at the meetings. And lo and behold, I've got kids and they were like, hey, you got kids, you want to, sort of, be in charge of this? And, like, I'm in charge of it now. Like, people come to me and ask me questions about the progress of the new playground.

GODIN: Bingo. And I would guess that they're lucky to have you. The thing that's interesting about your story is, it sounds like there was a little bit of permission given to you, that someone said, hey, Guy, do you want to do this? And part of my thesis is that more and more, we don't have to wait to be picked.

RAZ: Here's Seth Godin on the TED stage.

GODIN: The Internet was supposed to homogenize everyone by connecting us all. Instead what it's allowed is silos of interest. So you got the red-hat ladies over here. You got the red-hot triathletes over there. You got the organized armies over here. You got the disorganized rebels over there. You got people in white hats making food, and people in white hats sailing boats. The point is that you can find Ukrainian folk dancers and connect with them 'cause you want to be connected. The people on the fringes can find each other, connect and go somewhere. But we don't think about it that way and we haven't spent a lot of time talking about what that process is like. And I've been studying it for a couple years and I want to share a couple stories with you today. First, about a guy named Nathan Winograd. Nathan was the number two person at the San Francisco SPCA.

And what you may not know about the history of the SPCA is it was founded to kill dogs and cats. Cities gave them a charter to get rid of the stray animals on the street and destroy them. And in a typical year, 4 million dogs and cats were killed. Most of them within 24 hours of being scooped off the street. Nathan and his boss saw this and they could not tolerate it. So they set out to make San Francisco a no kill city. Create an entire city where every dog and cat, unless it was ill or dangerous, would be adopted, not killed. And everyone said it was impossible. Nathan and his boss went to the city council to get a change in the ordinance and people from SPCA's and humane shelters from around the country flew to San Francisco to testify against them. To say it would hurt the movement and it was inhumane. They persisted and Nathan went directly to the community.

He connected with people who cared about this, non-professionals, people with passion. And within just a couple of years, San Francisco became the first no kill city. Running no deficit, completely supported by the community. Nathan left and went to Tompkins County, New York, a place as different from San Francisco as you can be and still be in the United States. And he did it again. And then he went to North Carolina and did it again. And he went to Reno and he did it again.

RAZ: Now, one interesting thing Seth says he learned from studying leaders is that a lot of them, including Nathan Winograd from San Francisco, are not exactly textbook leadership material. They're not charismatic or inspiring. At least not at first.

GODIN: Yeah, I mean, there's a nonsense belief, which is that leaders have this sort of, glib. George Clooney-like or even Adolf Hitler-like affect to them. And that's probably the first time both of them have ever been mentioned in the same sentence. And that you need to have that in order to lead. That charisma leads to leadership. But in fact, in all of my research the opposite is true. Charisma doesn't cause you to become a leader. Being a leader makes you charismatic. And when we look at someone like Nathan, who's quite shy, he doesn't come across as someone who, you know, could take a Jimmy Stewart role in a movie.

RAZ: Or Bill Gates.

GODIN: Right. You know, Bill has a lot of trouble making eye contact. Bill has a lot of trouble getting a room of strangers to come around to his point of view.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, he's kind of, like, an awkward guy.

GODIN: Yeah. But now, because of the impact his foundation has had with, you know, he and Melinda, he gets charisma. People feel differently around him and one of the things we choose to hide is the idea that, oh, it's not for me. I don't have that thing. And my argument is, yeah, you do. We all do.

RAZ: I'm still a little bit hung up on this idea of finding your tribe, right? Like, how would you know who those people are that want to join you? Do they come to you? Do you find them? Is it a little bit of both?

GODIN: Well, it starts with this - you're not allowed to say, I'm going to make an average product for average people. And then go find a tribe that's going to adopt it. This is the mistake that people who grew up as you and I did with mass media make all the time. That our instinct is to make average stuff for average people, to have it appeal to lots of folks. When, in fact, tribes never want that. What the tribe wants is the obscure, the remarkable, the edgy, the thing that's worth talking about. And the fact that everyone has a platform right this minute means that the only reason you're not using it is 'cause you don't want to, not 'cause you're not allowed to.

RAZ: It really is amazing 'cause we're going to look back at this time and just say, we didn't understand, we just didn't really understand what was happening.

GODIN: That's right. I mean, if you and I had been around in the '30s and we knew what we knew today, the first thing we'd do is buy as many radio and TV licenses as we could afford because it was a license to print money for 70 years. Well, that's what's going on right now, except the licenses are free. And so the question is, who's going to invest the time? You know, I point out to people, I'm not the best blogger there ever was, but I've been persistent at it. Anyone could've done what I did. But they didn't. And we keep making the same mistake again and again where we say, oh, no, no. That's not for me, someone else is going to do that one.

RAZ: I'm interested in this idea of disruption, right? 'Cause if you read, like, a business magazine or you hear a lecture from, like, a business school, they all talk about being disruptive. And yet, like, a lot of places don't want disruption. They don't want people to come in and lead it to a new, uncertain place. It's scary.

GODIN: I think it's fair to say almost no one wants disruption. I think that what almost everyone does want is something better. And the art of disruption then is being able to figure out what is the likely path to get you from here to that better place with the least amount of appropriate fallout. So, you know, I spoke to the Newspaper Publishers of America 15 years ago and described in fairly startling detail, how the entire industry was going to fall apart and die. And that's not a useful form of disruption because I wasn't able to describe to them which boats they needed and which river they ought to start crossing right now. And if you want to be a leader, part of what you need to do is leverage the tools you've got, the people you have and the momentum you have to do something that might not be comfortable and might not be fun, but at least takes you to a new place in a way that's productive and useful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GODIN: Now, there's a million things I could share with you about the mechanics here. But let me just try a couple. The Beatles did not invent teenagers. They merely decided to lead them. You don't need permission from people to lead them. But in case you do, here it is. They're waiting. We're waiting for you to show us where to go next. So here's what leaders have in common. The first thing is they challenge the status quo. They challenge what's currently there.

The second thing is they build a culture - a secret language, a seven second handshake. A way of knowing that you're in or out. They have curiosity, curiosity about the people in the tribe, curiosity about outsiders. They're asking questions. They connect people to one another. Do you know what people want more than anything? They want to be missed. They want to be missed the day they don't show up. They want to be missed when they're gone. And tribe leaders can do that. And finally, they commit. They commit to the cause. They commit to the tribe. They commit to the people who are there.

RAZ: So it sounds like we're, I mean, we're in the middle of this, like, this revolutionary thing happening all around us and yet we haven't adapted this notion of leadership to the times yet.

GODIN: Right. But if we look at, you know, let's say we take a fourth grade class - and statistics being what they are - 10 percent of the people in that class are in the top 10 percent when it comes to leadership. Take those people of the class. Now, we've taken the natural leaders out. If a problem shows up, someone else is going to come up, step up and lead to deal with that problem. Take that person out. It's going to keep going until there's only three people left.

And what that ought to say to you is that the excuses that you are using when you hesitate to lead are just that. They are excuses from fear. They are not based on your particular abilities. But once you get taught that when you're 8 or 10 or 12 or 15 and it becomes a habit, it's going to change everything because you're not going to stop.

RAZ: Seth Godin. Google Seth to find out more about him. Just try that. One word, Seth. Or find several of his talks at TED.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE IN CHARGE")

RAZ: By the way, do you know how much grief I get for being - like being the liaison of this playground?

GODIN: I'm sure.

RAZ: Oh my God - people are just - all the time they're like, why are you doing this? Why that? Why this? Why that? Sometimes I'm like, maybe I don't want to leave this thing. Just pack it in.

GODIN: My small suggestion is you bring a clipboard with you and every time someone makes a suggestion, you hand them the clipboard and ask them to write it down.

RAZ: That's actually - that's a good tactic. I think I'm going to do that.

GODIN: Just the act of having them write it down is helpful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE IN CHARGE")

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on leadership this week. If you missed any of it or if you want to hear more or if you want to find out more about who is on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many, many more TED Talks at TED.com. And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.