The thin line between being an “isolated weirdo” and a popular Visionary Leader

by Didier Marlier on Thursday July 5th, 2018

I guess many of you have seen by now this remarkable short TED talk (3 minutes) from Derek Sivers, dated from 2009 on which I had written a blog post in 2010.

But what a few only may have seen is what happened to him, before this “Visionary Leader” finally created a movement:

On the second clip, the young man is isolated. A few people attempt to connect with him but quickly desist in front of his erratic behaviour. It looks like he will stay in people’s memory as “The Fool on the Hill”. The same happens to leaders who cultivate Power Distance, arrogance and manage by fear. They remain isolated and manage, at best, to harvest obedience and compliance, but fail completely to create engagement, innovation or a culture of “Extra-Mile”.

 So how do “Visionary Leaders” do it? How does this energumen change from an isolated weirdo into “a great guy” capable of mobilizing a hundred people in a record of time?

  • He is on a Mission: Weirdo seems alone on this planet. He is on a sacred mission (dance and enjoy the festival). There is Passion, Conviction and Resilience transpiring from him: He is certain to be right. He is clear on why he came, it is part of something bigger than him: his Deep Intent. Nothing will prevent him from doing what he has to do. He may be alone, he may be accompanied, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Alone or in good company, he will go until the end of his plan. That level of Passion and Conviction is the Pathos or Engagement test.
  • He walks the talk: You can see that Weirdo believes what he does. He came here to dance his heart away and he does, no matter what others may think. His behaviour matches his intention, he passes the Ethos Credibility test.

But that is not enough. Those two first points alone make him an isolated “wannabe leader”. And a visionary leader without followers doesn’t take his dream very far. He’ll remain a dreamer without impact on his people, organization or market. He soon will join the Legion of Bitterness, saying: “Well I also had this idea before her but people weren’t ready to follow. I was too much of a visionary for them”. What made Weirdo become a Visionary Leader are the following:

  • He starts from where they are:  When a young amicable lady comes to him, on the 2nd clip, Weirdo acts in such a scary way (completely locked in his dream) that she soon walks away, probably terrified. Leaders preaching by PowerPoint, webcasts or from the top of a podium have all the chances to generate the same impact. They do not speak the language of their people, they do not engage on their people’s terms. All they seem to do is to try and convince, coerce them to follow. On the first clip, used in TED, when the first follower joins him… He stops, for the first time, he seeks to understand, he creates a dialogue. Together the co-create clarity, meaning and ownership (which Weirdo is clearly willing to share). It is Logos, the clarity test that he passes.
  • He empowers his followers: Logos, Ethos and Pathos still haven’t created the Movement. When a follower, soon joined by one of his friends, who then calls his friends, Weirdo, is more than happy to let go of control, power or stardom. His mission is to dance, not to be on the front page of Forbes or Fortune magazine. Remember the three conditions for Empowerment: Are you truly ready to give them Autonomy? It doesn’t seem that Weirdo is trying to reason everyone joining in using his elaborated choreography. He lets them… dance. Mastery? If you don’t wish to set your people up for failure, it is your responsibility to ensure that they have the capacity and skills to succeed. As a true Visionary Leader, it didn’t take Weirdo long to realize that those people had the capacity to dance and enjoy themselves. Purpose? Assume that the people joining have different vision about what Weirdo is trying to do (his purpose): He is there to sell us drugs that he obviously is under effect of, he is here to catch a girl as the 2nd clip suggests, in a horrific manner, he is here to get us all drunk… In such a case, it wouldn’t be too long for this wonderful coalition to end up into fistfight. But in the case, our friend’s purpose (dance, enjoy and have no shame) is clear and everybody joins without complex (even I, the worse dancer on Earth, would!)
  • The purpose (enjoy dancing) is more important than his ego: Because the Purpose is more important than his ego, because, the purpose is not to follow a given and constraining procedure, because his Purpose is closer from Inclusion than from Diversity (sorry it was too tempting… Can you imagine him go and count gender, races, health state and exclude some because they are over-represented and punish the team because they do not have enough minorities present?), he creates a self-led organism. He has let go of his ownership, he is so determined to fulfill his mission that he is close from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow State and trusts his followers will complete the job. It certainly is a very powerful lesson for me, who have so much difficulty to totally let go of my control of Enablers whereas, being surrounded by exceptional people… I should (and don’t worry, I’d continue dancing and enjoying it!)

It is by discussing the role of strong HR individuals, in a German multinational, all animated by a sense of Mission that this TED clip came back to my mind. A dream and energy behind it, won’t be enough if you wish to create a movement. You need to engage your followers!

Enjoy your leadership journey!

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