in Deep Thoughts, Relationships

In Order to Lead, First You Must Follow

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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  1. You’re right, but… other famous leaders, like Steve Jobs, Vince Lombardi, and FDR, were not particularly self-deprecating, and were great leaders, nonetheless. Could it be because the power of the vision they brought to the table was powerful enough to draw followers?

    Could it be that GRS succeeded because (regardless of the origin) the content you selected for presentation had benefit for the readers? Dave Ramsey has success, and much of his content is his, and he’s not all that shy about it. What matters is: does the content make my life better? GRS did. Could that be what made you a thought leader?

    I’m not arguing against your view — I subscribe to it, too, because I’m not a self-promoter. But hasn’t the opposite approach work, too?

    • I think you’re right. If you have the overwhelming vision and genius, you can do tremendous things by force of will. Question is, can you build a sustainable organizatoin/effort that way? The first time Jobs left apple, they floundered until his return. Cult of personality will only get you so far.

  2. J.D., I think another key piece of your blogs success is that people can relate to your story. Getting financial advice from a financial expert is a little like going to the doctor. Yeah, they’re the expert and you can learn from them, but somehow their advice feels distant and cold.

    Being in debt and fed up with it is something that everyone can relate to. Your story gave your readers someone to root for!

  3. This reminds me of a quote by President Ronald Reagan,
    “Its amazing what one can accomplish when it doesnt matter who takes the credit. “

  4. Very interesting points. I definitely think there is an audience that responds better to suggestions when they come from a non-authoritarian source. Others, it seems, prefer to receive their orders from unquestioned experts. I’d suggest that for the many leadership styles there are as many follow-ship styles to match. Great post!

  5. This idea resonates with great leaders I have known. 2 weeks ago I had a chance to chat with Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach who works with the top CEO’s in the US. He relayed a conversation he had with one of his proteges, Alan Mulaly of Ford, named CEO of the year for 2013. When asked how Alan viewed his role, Alan had this to say: “I don’t design the cars, I don’t build the cars, I don’t sell or market the cars; the only reason I am here is to make the people around me, the people who know how to do those things, better. You have to let go of ego to be successful.”