In Order to Lead, First You Must Follow

13 March 2014 · 6 comments

To prepare for two upcoming projects (an Entrepreneur article on work-life balance and my upcoming Pioneer Nation presentation on time management), I’ve been re-reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

This morning, I happened upon Franklin’s story of starting the Philadelphia public library. When he publicized the “scheme” (as he calls it), he had trouble selling subscriptions. (In 1730, libraries were formed by pooling mutual collections of books and then asking people for donations or “subscriptions”.) Eventually, he found a way to get more members.

The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project, that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project.

I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practised it on such occasions, and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.

If it remains awhile uncertain to whom the merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encouraged to claim it, and then even envy will be disposed to do you justice by plucking those assumed feathers and restoring them to their right owner.

This passage gave me a flash of insight.

Interviewers often ask me how it is that Get Rich Slowly became successful. I generally attribute its success to the power of story and my willingness to interact with the audience. But this anecdote from Franklin made me realize there’s another piece to the puzzle.

One of the reasons Get Rich Slowly became successful is because for a l-o-n-g time, I claimed no special knowledge about finance. Instead, I merely relayed the work of others. Sure, my articles were espousing particular viewpoints — “debt is bad!” “index funds are awesome!” — but I wasn’t presenting these viewpoints as my own. Instead, I was summarizing the work and opinions of outside authorities.

By doing this, I kept my ego out of the equation. It wasn’t an intentional thing (other than the fact that I had no special knowledge to impart), but it was beneficial nonetheless.

This reminds me of a lesson that I learned at a leadership camp in high school. We were talking about how to build consensus and how to get people to buy into your vision. As an example, we looked at Watership Down, the story about a band of rabbits searching for a new home. Our instructor pointed out that Hazel, one of the two rabbits that headed the group, had an interesting leadership style. He never took credit for anything. Instead, he let other rabbits make suggestions and then Hazel pushed the agenda forward. He was certainly acting as a leader, but he was taking no credit or glory.

Another example: Kim and I started watching Survivor: Nicaragua last night. Early on, Marty decides he doesn’t like former football coach Jimmy Johnson and wants him eliminated from the game. Marty asks several people to vote Jimmy J. off the island. But when he speaks with the ego-centric Jimmy T., he takes a different approach. With Jimmy T., Marty acts submissively. “What do you think we should do?” he asks.

Jimmy T., who hasn’t an ounce of humility in his body, says he wants to get rid of Jimmy Johnson because he feels like the latter doesn’t respect him. Marty agrees, of course, and he makes Jimmy T. feel like he’s the owner of the idea. (Jimmy T.’s arrogance — hell, it’s hubris — leads him to be the next player eliminated from the game.)

The bottom line: If you want to persuade, don’t put forth ideas as your own. Remove your ego from the equation. Even if you have no desire for attention or glory, don’t claim ownership of ideas when you can attribute them to another source.

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