Of the Golden Future Time

There is a quote attributed to Goethe that goes along the lines of the following: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.” Finding faults and making them known not only illustrates what’s bad about the current situation, but by the very act of defining it also solidifies things as they are. If you want change you have to go one step further and illustrate the situation as it ought to be, and, if this is to be effective, tie this vision to the interests of those involved, make it irresistible enough for them to want to pursue.

Before Napoleon, and Caesar, and Alexander, there was a great Persian leader called Cyrus the Great. Cyrus is much less known today, but he was so successful during his time that he later became an inspiration for Alexander the Great himself. What Cyrus knew when he set off to create his empire with a handful of troops his father gave him was that he would only succeed if all his men shared a vision, a vision directly tied to their self interest so that every one of them would want to see it realized.

This meant riches, power and glory, though not in abstract terms like these, but based on actual concrete objectives. Not too small as to lack incentive, not too great as to appear insurmountable. A great example of this in use is right after his first battle. Cyrus was initially sent by his father to aid his uncle against an Assyrian invasion. The Assyrians outnumbered their combined armies, but he and his uncle managed to fight them off and send them into retreat. His uncle was eager to celebrate success and did not wish to pursue the battle further, but Cyrus knew that this was the best opportunity to strike back, and besides, the Assyrians were likely to come back again later.

What happened next was extraordinary. Cyrus had a well trained and motivated force, but they were very few in number and none of them cavalry, leaving him unable to enact his plan of pursuit alone. His uncle had enough cavalry, but he did not want to just hand it over to Cyrus. So Cyrus convinced his uncle to give him permission to talk to his cavalry and ask them if any of the men would come with him to pursue the Assyrians, so in this way he could borrow the volunteers if any presented themselves. Cyrus did not talk to the men himself, instead he asked his cousin, who was part of his uncle’s troops, as well as his friend and kin, to deliver the speech for him, knowing that his own men would better listen to the words of one of their own.

It worked. His cousin pleaded for the plan as well as for Cyrus himself as a competent leader, and very soon, most of his uncle’s cavalry was under Cyrus’ control. When his uncle woke up and walked out of his tent the next morning after a night of drunken celebration, he found most of his army gone. This was not a kind thing to do to the uncle, and Cyrus made amends for this later, but it illustrates how effective a good vision is in getting people to join your ranks. The uncle had no vision, he wanted to run away from danger, to go on the defensive. Cyrus wanted to strike back, and he tied it back to his men’s self interest by focusing on the riches they could plunder. Here was an achievable goal that would bring them a healthy amount of wealth, glory and power, and he had the means to realize it. The fleeing Assyrian army was within reach – all they had to do was catch them and deliver a powerful blow, and victory would be theirs. To remain with the uncle was to lose out, and nobody wanted to do that.

His counter-attack was a success, and throughout his campaign he kept using the same strategy again and again to swell his ranks and find allies in everyone who would join him. By the end he has managed to amass a great army from local tribes and nearby countries, and went on to conquer Babylon, establishing a new Persian empire. People followed him because he cared about them, he wanted them to succeed and prosper. He gave them an irresistible, yet realistic vision of the future, and he offered his leadership as the means to making it happen. In return, the people who joined him became his means of realizing his dream, and both prospered as a result1.

Fast forward to today’s world of tech, specifically the recently popular App.net project by Dalton Caldwell, which rose to fame for precisely the same reasons. Caldwell was dissatisfied with Twitter, specifically the issue of Twitter’s business model being based on advertising rather than selling a service directly to users, a model that introduces conflicts of interest that have been felt recently by third party developers of Twitter apps. Because those developers are not paying for the service, Twitter is putting a squeeze on them, aiming to constrain the channels through which their users interact with the service so they can have better control over advertising coverage.

Caldwell blogged about this, but instead of merely pointing out the problem, he actually went ahead and proposed a solution – his own service called App.net. But not only this, he went even further and made a case for why people would want to pay for the service, especially developers, for whom he proposed a lucrative revenue share model. To raise the necessary money to build the project he asked people to pre-pay a year of service, aiming for a minimum of $500,000 to get it started. He blew past that to over $800,000 in just a month of fund raising. All of this started from a blog post, but of course it wasn’t just a blog post, it was a statement of dissatisfaction, a vision of how things could be, a means to achieve it, and reasons for how you would benefit from getting on board. Execute all these elements competently and people will join you.

This is a problem I’ve noticed with many of my posts and something I need work on. I point out a problem, but I don’t propose a solution. I illustrate what’s wrong, but I don’t paint a clear vision of how things should be. Identifying potential issues and challenging ossified beliefs is of course important, but it’s only the first step in a change process. The next is to paint the vision and lay out a plan that can make it come to life. If you don’t like how something is, show us how it should be and how we can get there, else you are denying without also affirming, destroying without creating.

  1. I recommend the following book: Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War, by Larry Hedrick. Hedrick rewrote Xenophon’s account of Cyrus into a first-person account as if Cyrus has written it himself, with the focus on leadership lessons. Don’t let that put you off though because he’s done a great job with this. Highly recommended.
August 2012