Sometimes I get invited to give weird talks. Like, to the people who dress up in stuffed animal costumes to perform at sporting events. Unfortunately I couldn’t go. But it got me thinking about the fact that these guys – at least most of them – know what it is that they do for a living. They dress up as stuffed animals and entertain people at sporting events.
Shortly after that, I got invited to speak at a convention for the people who make balloon animals. Again, I couldn’t go. But it’s a fascinating group. They make balloon animals. There is a big schism between the ones who make gospel animals and the ones who make porn animals. But they do a lot of really cool stuff with balloons. Sometimes they get in trouble, but not often. The other thing about these guys is, they also know what they do for a living. They make balloon animals.
But what do we do for a living? I want to argue that what we do is, we try to change everything. We try to find a piece of the status quo, something that bothers us, something that needs to be improved, something that is itching to be changed, and we change it. We try to make big, permanent, important changes. 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.
Nathan Winograd was the number-two person at the San Francisco SPCA. What you may not know about the history of the SPCA is that 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. In a typical year, 4m 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 where every dog and cat, unless it was ill or dangerous, would be adopted.
Everyone said it was impossible. Nathan and his boss went to the citycouncil to get a change in the ordinance. People from SPCAs and humane shelters around the country flew to San Francisco to testify against them, saying that it would hurt the movement and that it was inhumane. They persisted. Nathan went direct to the community. He connected with people who cared about the animals. Within just a couple of years, San Francisco became the first no-kill city. Nathan left and went to Tompkins County, New York, a place as different from San Francisco as it can be and still be in the United States. And he did it again. He went from being a glorified dog-catcher to transforming the community completely. Then he went to North Carolina and did it there. He went to Reno, and he did it there.
When I think about what Nathan did, I think about ideas. I think about the idea that creating an idea, spreading an idea, has a lot behind it. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding. What they do is they take a light bulb and smash it. Now there is a bunch of reasons for that, and stories about it. But one reason is that it indicates a change, from before to after. It is a moment in time. I want to argue that we are living through, and are right at the key moment of, a change in the way ideas are created, spread and implemented.
We started with the factory idea, that you could change the whole world if you had an efficient factory that could churn out change. Then we went to the TV idea. That idea said if you had a big enough mouthpiece, if you could get on TV enough times and buy enough ads, you could win. Now we’re in this new model of leadership, where the way we make change is not by using money or power to lever a system, but by leading.
Let me tell you about the three cycles. The first one is the factory cycle. Henry Ford comes up with a really cool idea. It enables him to hire men who used to get paid 50c a day and pay them $5 a day because he’s got an efficient enough factory. With that sort of advantage, you can churn out a lot of cars. You can make a lot of change. You can get roads built, and change the fabric of an entire country. The essence of what you’re doing is that you need ever cheaper labour, ever faster machines. The problem we’ve hit now is that we’re running out of both.
But there is good news around the corner, really good news. I call it the idea of tribes. What tribes are is a very simple concept that goes back 50,000 years. It’s about leading and connecting people and ideas, and it’s something people have wanted for ever. Lots of people are used to having a spiritual tribe, or a church tribe, a work tribe, a community tribe. But now, thanks to the internet, thanks to the explosion of the mass media, and a lot of other things that are bubbling through our society around the world, tribes are everywhere.
The internet was supposed to homogenise everyone by connecting us all. Instead what it’s allowed is silos of interest. So you’ve got the red-hat ladies over here. You’ve got the red-hat triathletes over there. You’ve got the organised armies over here. You’ve got the disorganised rebels over here. You’ve 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 because you want to be connected. People on the fringes can find each other, connect and go somewhere. Every town that has a volunteer fire department understands this way of thinking.
You know, the pirate tribe is a fascinating one. They’ve got their own flag, they’ve got the eye patches. You can tell when you’re running into someone in a tribe. And it turns out that it’s tribes – not money, not factories – that can change our world, that can change politics, that can align large numbers of people. Not because you force them to do something against their will, but because they want to connect.
That’s what we do for a living now, all of us. We find something worth changing, and then assemble tribes that assemble tribes that spread the idea and spread the idea, and it becomes something far bigger than ourselves. It becomes a movement. So when Al Gore set out to change the world again, he didn’t do it by himself, and he didn’t do it by buying a lot of ads. He did it by creating a movement. You don’t need everyone. What boxer Kevin Kelley has taught us is that you just need, I don’t know, a thousand true fans. A thousand people who care enough that they will get you the next round and the next round and the next. That means that the idea you create, the product you create, the movement you create isn’t for everyone. It’s not a mass thing. That’s not what this is about. What it’s about instead is finding the true believers.
The Beatles did not invent teenagers. They merely decided to lead them. Most movements, most leadership that we’re doing is about finding a group that’s disconnected but that already has a yearning. Not persuading people to want something they don’t have yet. When Diane Hatz worked on The Meatrix, a video that spread all across the Internet about the way farm animals are treated, she didn’t invent the idea of being a vegan. She didn’t invent the idea of caring about this issue. But she helped organise people, helped turn it into a movement. Hugo Chavez did not invent the disaffected middle and lower class of Venezuela. He merely led them. Bob Marley did not invent Rastafarians. He just stepped up and said, ‘Follow me.’ Derek Sivers invented CD Baby, which allowed independent musicians to have a place to sell their music without selling out to the man.
What all these people have in common is that they are heretics. Heretics look at the status quo and say: ‘This will not stand. I can’t abide by this status quo. I am willing to stand up and be counted and move things forward. I see what the status quo is. I don’t like it.’ Instead of looking at all the little rules and following each one of them, instead of being what I call a ‘sheepwalker’, every once in a while someone stands up and says: ‘Not me.’ Or, ‘This one is important. We need to organise around it.’ Not everyone will. But you don’t need everyone. You just need a few people who will look at the rules, realise they make no sense and understand how much they want to be connected.
It can be something as prosaic as shoes, and something as complicated as overthrowing a government. It’s exactly the same behaviour. Michelle Kaufmann has pioneered new ways of thinking about environmental architecture. She doesn’t do it by quietly building one house at a time. She does it by telling a story to people who want to hear it.
By connecting a tribe of people who are desperate to be connected to each other. By leading a movement. By making change. And around and around and around it goes.
So three questions I’d offer you. The first one is: Who exactly are you upsetting? Because if you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re not changing the status quo. The second question is: Who are you connecting? Because for a lot of people, that’s what they’re in it for, the connections that are being made, one to the other. And the third one is: Who are you leading? Because focusing on that part of it, not the mechanics of what you’re building but the ‘who’ and the leading part, is where change comes.
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 is what leaders have in common. The first thing is, they challenge the status quo. They challenge what’s currently there. The second thing is that 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 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. It’s fascinating because all tribe leaders have charisma. But you don’t need charisma to become a leader. Being a leader gives you charisma. If you look and study the leaders who have succeeded, that’s where charisma comes from – from the leading. Finally, they commit. They commit to the cause. They commit to the tribe. They commit to the people who are there.
So I’d like you to do something for me. I hope you’ll think about it before you reject it out of hand. What I want you to do only takes 24 hours. Create a movement, something that matters. Start. Do it. We need it.
Seth Godin is a best-selling author, an entrepreneur and an agent of change. His most recent books include The Dipand Meatball Sundae.