After the publication of my first book “The 48 laws of power,” I began to receive requests for advice from people in every conceivable profession and at every level of experience. Over the years, I have now personally consulted with over 100 different people. In so many of the cases, the following scenario would play itself out. They would come to me with a specific problem, a boss from hell, a business relationship that had turned ugly, a promotion that never came. I would slowly direct their attention away from the boss and the job, and instead get them to search inside themselves and try to find the emotional root of their discontent. Often, as we talked it out, they would realize that at their core, they felt deeply frustrated – their creativity was not being realized, their careers had somehow taken a wrong turn – what they actually wanted was something larger; a real and substantial change in their careers and in their lives.
It would be at this point that I would tell them a story about myself, about my own peculiar path to change and transformation from a highly unsuccessful writer, eking out an existence in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, to best-selling author seemingly, overnight. I have never publicly related this story before, but for this special occasion, my first TEDx talk, I thought I would share it with you because it’s actually very relevant to the subject of change.
The story goes like this, I had known since an early age that I wanted to become a writer. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write. Perhaps it was novels, or essays, or plays. After university, I drifted into journalism, as a way to, at least, make a living while writing. Then one day, after several years of working as a writer and editor, I was having lunch with a man who had just edited an article I had written for a magazine. After downing his third martini, this editor, an older man, finally admitted to me why he had asked me to lunch, “You should seriously consider a different career,” he told me.
“You are not writer material. Your work is too undisciplined, your style is too bizarre, your ideas are just not relatable to the average reader. Go to law school, Robert, go to business school, spare yourself the pain.” At first, these words were like a punch in the stomach, but in the months to come, I realized something about myself. I had entered a career that just didn’t really suit me, mostly as a way to make a living, and my work reflected this incompatibility. I had to get out of journalism. This realization initiated a period of wandering in my life. I traveled all across Europe, I worked every conceivable job, I did construction work in Greece, taught English in Barcelona, worked as a hotel receptionist in Paris, a tour guide in Dublin, served as a trainee for an English company, making television documentaries, living not far from here in Brixton.
During all of this time, I wrote several novels that never made it past 100 pages, and dozens of essays that I would tear up, and plays that never got produced. I wandered back to Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. I worked in a detective agency, among other odd jobs. I entered the film business, working as an assistant to a director, as a researcher, story developer, and screenwriter. In these long years of wandering, I had totaled over 50 different jobs. By the year 1995, my parents – God bless them! – were beginning to get seriously worried about me.
I was 36 years old, and I seemed lost and unable to settle into anything. I too had moments of doubt, but I did not feel lost. I was searching and exploring, I was hungry for experiences, and I was continuously writing. That same year, while in Italy for yet another job, I met a man there, named Joost Elffers, a packager and producer of books. One day, while we were walking along the quays of Venice, Joost asked me if I had any ideas for a book. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, an idea just gushed out of me. It was about power. I told Joost that I was constantly reading books on history, and the stories that I read about Julius Caesar, the Borgias, and Louis XIV, were the exact same stories that I had personally witnessed with my own eyes in all of my different jobs, only less bloody.
(Laughter) People want power, and they want to disguise this wanting of power so they play games. They covertly manipulate and intrigue, all the while presenting a nice, even saintly, front. I would expose these games. I gave him numerous examples of what I meant, and he became increasingly excited. He said I should write a treatment, and if it was good enough, he would pay me to live while I wrote half the book, enough to sell it to a publisher. Suddenly, in writing what would become “The 48 laws of power,” everything in my disjointed past seemed to click into place, like magic, like destiny. All of those various writing experiences – the journalism, the television, the theater, the film – had given me the skills to tell stories and organize my thoughts; all of that reading of history had given me a vast storehouse of ideas that I could draw upon; and my work as a researcher had taught me how to find the perfect anecdote. Even those different, seemingly random jobs had exposed me to every type of psychology and to the dark corners of human psyche.
Even the languages I learned while traveling taught me patience and discipline. All of these experiences added up to rich layers of knowledge and practice that altered me from the inside out. In my own very weird and intuitive way, I had given myself the perfect education for the writing of ” The 48 laws of power.” The book came out in 1998, and it was a success. The course of my life was forever altered. The moral of this story, as I told the people who would come to me for advice, and as I’m telling you now, is the following. We humans tend to fixate on what we can see with our eyes. It is the most animal part of our nature. When we look at the changes and transformations in other people’s lives, we see the good luck that someone had in meeting a person like Joost, with all of the right connections and the funding. We see the book or the project that brings the money and the attention. In other words, we see the visible signs of opportunity and success.
— change in our own lives, but we are grasping at an illusion. What really allows for such dramatic changes are the things that occur on the inside of a person and are completely invisible: the slow accumulation of knowledge and skills, the incremental improvements in work habits, and the ability to withstand criticism. Any change in people’s fortune is merely the visible manifestation of all of that deep preparation over time. By essentially ignoring this internal, invisible aspect, we fail to change anything fundamental within ourselves. And so, in a few years time, we reach our limits yet again, we grow frustrated, we crave change, we grab at something quick and superficial, and we remain prisoners forever of these recurring patterns in our lives. The answer, the key to the ability to transform ourselves is actually insanely simple: to reverse this perspective. Stop fixating on what other people are saying and doing; on the money, the connections, the outward appearance of things. Instead, look inward, focus on the smaller, internal changes that lay the groundwork for a much larger change in fortune.
It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. Reality is what will liberate and transform you. Here’s how this would work in your own life. Consider the fact that each and every one of you is fundamentally unique – one of a kind; your DNA, the particular configuration of your brain, your life experiences. In early childhood, this uniqueness manifested itself by the fact that you felt particularly drawn to certain subjects and activities – what I call in my book ‘mastery, ‘ primal inclinations.
You cannot rationally explain why you felt so drawn to words, or to music, or to particular questions about the world around you, or to social dynamics. As you get older, you often lose contact with these inclinations. You listen to parents who urge you to follow a particular career path. You listen to teachers and alcoholic magazine editors who tell you what you’re good and bad at. You listen to friends who tell you what’s cool and not cool.
At a certain point, you can almost become a stranger to yourself and so, you enter career paths that are not suited to you emotionally and intellectually. Your life’s task, as I call it, is to return to those inclinations and to that uniqueness that marked each and every one of you at birth. At whatever age you find yourself, you must reflect back upon those earliest inclinations. You must look at those subjects in the present that continued to spark that childlike intense curiosity in you. You must look at those subjects and activities that you’ve been forced to do over the past few years that repel you, that have no emotional resonance.
Based on these reflections, you determine a direction you must take: writing, or music, or a particular branch of science, or a form of business, or public service. You now have a loose overall framework which you can explore and find those angles and positions that suit you best. You listen closely to yourself, to your internal radar. Some parts of that framework – for me. journalism and Hollywood – do not feel right. So you move on, slowly narrowing your path, all the while accumulating skills. Most people want simple, direct, straight line paths to the perfect position and to success, but instead, you must welcome wrong turns and mistakes. They make you aware of your flaws, they widen your experiences, they toughen you up. If you come to this process at a later age, you must cultivate a new set of skills that suit this change in direction you’ll be taking, and find a way to blend them with your previous skills.
Nothing in this process is ever wasted. In any event, the gold that you are after is learning and the acquisition of skills, not a fat paycheck. Look at what happens to you, as you adopt this very different internally-driven mindset. Because you are headed in a direction that resonates with you emotionally and personally, the hours of practice and study do not seem so burdensome. You can sustain your attention and your interest for much longer periods of time. What excites you is the learning process itself, overcoming obstacles, increasing your skill level. You are immersed in the present instead of constantly obsessing over the future, and so, you pay greater attention to the work itself and to the people around you, developing patience and social intelligence. Without forcing the issue, a point is reached in which you are thoroughly prepared from within.
The slightest opportunity that comes your way, you will now exploit. In fact, you will draw opportunities to you because people will sense how prepared you are, which is, I believe, what happened to me with Joost. Some of this might sound a bit mystical, but the results of this process that I’m talking about have been corroborated by recent scientific research. Most notably, the 1995’s study by Anders Ericsson that yielded the very famous 10,000-hour rule. In tracking people who had devoted years of their lives to learning chess or music, Ericsson discovered that somewhere near that magical mark of 10,000 hours of practice, the minds of these people suddenly became much more creative and fluid. The structures of their brains had been altered by all of those hours of practice, and at that 10,000-hour mark, we could see a visible transformation in their performance and creativity. That is a level you will reach naturally and organically if you follow this process far enough. Finally, what I’m proposing to you right now is actually, I think, rather radical, namely, the way to transform yourself is through your work.
I know this runs counter to our prevailing cultural prejudices; work is too ugly, too boring, too banal. Self-transformation, we think, comes through a spiritual journey, therapy, a guru who tells us what to do, intense group experiences, social experiences, and drugs. But most of these are ways of running away from ourselves and relieving our chronic boredom. They’re not connected to process, so any changes that occur don’t last. Instead, through our work, we can actually connect to who we are, instead of running away. By entering that slow, organic process, we can actually change ourselves from the inside out in a way that’s very real and very lasting. This process involves a journey of self-discovery that can be seen as quite spiritual if you like. In the end of this process, we contribute something unique and meaningful to our culture through our work, which is hardly ugly, boring, or banal.
What makes a great leader today? Many of us carry this image of this all-knowing superhero who stands and commands and protects his followers. But that’s kind of an image from another time, and what’s also outdated are the leadership development programs that are based on success models for a world that was, not a world that is or that is coming. We conducted a study of 4,000 companies, and we asked them, let’s see the effectiveness of your leadership development programs. Fifty-eight percent of the companies cited significant talent gaps for critical leadership roles.
That means that despite corporate training programs, off-sites, assessments, coaching, all of these things, more than half the companies had failed to grow enough great leaders. You may be asking yourself, is my company helping me to prepare to be a great 21st-century leader? The odds are, probably not. Now, I’ve spent 25 years of my professional life observing what makes great leaders. I’ve worked inside Fortune 500 companies, I’ve advised over 200 CEOs, and I’ve cultivated more leadership pipelines than you can imagine. But a few years ago, I noticed a disturbing trend in leadership preparation. I noticed that, despite all the efforts, there were familiar stories that kept resurfacing about individuals.
One story was about Chris, a high-potential, superstar leader who moves to a new unit and fails, destroying unrecoverable value. And then there were stories like Sidney, the CEO, who was so frustrated because her company is cited as a best company for leaders, but only one of the top 50 leaders is equipped to lead their crucial initiatives. And then there were stories like the senior leadership team of a once-thriving business that’s surprised by a market shift, finds itself having to force the company to reduce its size in half or go out of business. Now, these recurring stories cause me to ask two questions. Why are the leadership gaps widening when there’s so much more investment in leadership development? And what are the great leaders doing distinctly different to thrive and grow? One of the things that I did, I was so consumed by these questions and also frustrated by those stories, that I left my job so that I could study this full time, and I took a year to travel to different parts of the world to learn about effective and ineffective leadership practices in companies, countries and nonprofit organizations.
And so I did things like travel to South Africa, where I had an opportunity to understand how Nelson Mandela was ahead of his time in anticipating and navigating his political, social and economic context. I also met a number of nonprofit leaders who, despite very limited financial resources, were making a huge impact in the world, often bringing together seeming adversaries. And I spent countless hours in presidential libraries trying to understand how the environment had shaped the leaders, the moves that they made, and then the impact of those moves beyond their tenure.
And then, when I returned to work full time, in this role, I joined with wonderful colleagues who were also interested in these questions. Now, from all this, I distilled the characteristics of leaders who are thriving and what they do differently, and then I also distilled the preparation practices that enable people to grow to their potential. I want to share some of those with you now. (“What makes a great leader in the 21st century?”) In a 21st-century world, which is more global, digitally enabled and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation, and where nothing big gets done without some kind of a complex matrix, relying on traditional development practices will stunt your growth as a leader.
In fact, traditional assessments like narrow 360 surveys or outdated performance criteria will give you false positives, lulling you into thinking that you are more prepared than you really are. Leadership in the 21st century is defined and evidenced by three questions. Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life? The answer to this question is on your calendar. Who are you spending time with? On what topics? Where are you traveling? What are you reading? And then how are you distilling this into understanding potential discontinuities, and then making a decision to do something right now so that you’re prepared and ready? There’s a leadership team that does a practice where they bring together each member collecting, here are trends that impact me, here are trends that impact another team member, and they share these, and then make decisions, to course-correct a strategy or to anticipate a new move.
Great leaders are not head-down. They see around corners, shaping their future, not just reacting to it. The second question is, what is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network? You know, we hear often about good ol’ boy networks and they’re certainly alive and well in many institutions. But to some extent, we all have a network of people that we’re comfortable with. So this question is about your capacity to develop relationships with people that are very different than you. And those differences can be biological, physical, functional, political, cultural, socioeconomic. And yet, despite all these differences, they connect with you and they trust you enough to cooperate with you in achieving a shared goal. Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is a source of pattern identification at greater levels and also of solutions, because you have people that are thinking differently than you are.
Third question: are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past? There’s an expression: Go along to get along. But if you follow this advice, chances are as a leader, you’re going to keep doing what’s familiar and comfortable. Great leaders dare to be different. They don’t just talk about risk-taking, they actually do it. And one of the leaders shared with me the fact that the most impactful development comes when you are able to build the emotional stamina to withstand people telling you that your new idea is naïve or reckless or just plain stupid. Now interestingly, the people who will join you are not your usual suspects in your network. They’re often people that think differently and therefore are willing to join you in taking a courageous leap.
And it’s a leap, not a step. More than traditional leadership programs, answering these three questions will determine your effectiveness as a 21st-century leader. So what makes a great leader in the 21st century? I’ve met many, and they stand out. They are women and men who are preparing themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday but also for the realities of today and all of those unknown possibilities of tomorrow. Thank you. (Applause).
There’s a man by the name of Captain William Swenson who recently was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009. On that day, a column of American and Afghan troops were making their way through a part of Afghanistan to help protect a group of government officials, a group of Afghan government officials, who would be meeting with some local village elders.
The column came under ambush, and was surrounded on three sides, and amongst many other things, Captain Swenson was recognized for running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. One of the people he rescued was a sergeant, and he and a comrade were making their way to a medevac helicopter. And what was remarkable about this day is, by sheer coincidence, one of the medevac medics happened to have a GoPro camera on his helmet and captured the whole scene on camera. It shows Captain Swenson and his comrade bringing this wounded soldier who had received a gunshot to the neck. They put him in the helicopter, and then you see Captain Swenson bend over and give him a kiss before he turns around to rescue more. I saw this, and I thought to myself, where do people like that come from? What is that? That is some deep, deep emotion, when you would want to do that.
There’s a love there, and I wanted to know why is it that I don’t have people that I work with like that? You know, in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backwards. Right? So I asked myself, where do people like this come from? And my initial conclusion was that they’re just better people. That’s why they’re attracted to the military. These better people are attracted to this concept of service. But that’s completely wrong. What I learned was that it’s the environment, and if you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things, and more importantly, others have that capacity too.
I’ve had the great honor of getting to meet some of these, who we would call heroes, who have put themselves and put their lives at risk to save others, and I asked them, “Why would you do it? Why did you do it?” And they all say the same thing: “Because they would have done it for me.” It’s this deep sense of trust and cooperation. So trust and cooperation are really important here. The problem with concepts of trust and cooperation is that they are feelings, they are not instructions. I can’t simply say to you, “Trust me,” and you will. I can’t simply instruct two people to cooperate, and they will. It’s not how it works. It’s a feeling. So where does that feeling come from? If you go back 50,000 years to the Paleolithic era, to the early days of Homo sapiens, what we find is that the world was filled with danger, all of these forces working very, very hard to kill us.
Nothing personal. Whether it was the weather, lack of resources, maybe a saber-toothed tiger, all of these things working to reduce our lifespan. And so we evolved into social animals, where we lived together and worked together in what I call a circle of safety, inside the tribe, where we felt like we belonged. And when we felt safe amongst our own, the natural reaction was trust and cooperation. There are inherent benefits to this. It means I can fall asleep at night and trust that someone from within my tribe will watch for danger. If we don’t trust each other, if I don’t trust you, that means you won’t watch for danger.
Bad system of survival. The modern day is exactly the same thing. The world is filled with danger, things that are trying to frustrate our lives or reduce our success, reduce our opportunity for success. It could be the ups and downs in the economy, the uncertainty of the stock market. It could be a new technology that renders your business model obsolete overnight. Or it could be your competition that is sometimes trying to kill you. It’s sometimes trying to put you out of business, but at the very minimum is working hard to frustrate your growth and steal your business from you.
We have no control over these forces. These are a constant, and they’re not going away. The only variable are the conditions inside the organization, and that’s where leadership matters, because it’s the leader that sets the tone. When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen. I was flying on a trip, and I was witness to an incident where a passenger attempted to board before their number was called, and I watched the gate agent treat this man like he had broken the law, like a criminal.
He was yelled at for attempting to board one group too soon. So I said something. I said, “Why do you have treat us like cattle? Why can’t you treat us like human beings?” And this is exactly what she said to me. She said, “Sir, if I don’t follow the rules, I could get in trouble or lose my job.” All she was telling me is that she doesn’t feel safe. All she was telling me is that she doesn’t trust her leaders. The reason we like flying Southwest Airlines is not because they necessarily hire better people. It’s because they don’t fear their leaders. You see, if the conditions are wrong, we are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other, and that inherently weakens the organization. When we feel safe inside the organization, we will naturally combine our talents and our strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities. The closest analogy I can give to what a great leader is, is like being a parent.
If you think about what being a great parent is, what do you want? What makes a great parent? We want to give our child opportunities, education, discipline them when necessary, all so that they can grow up and achieve more than we could for ourselves. Great leaders want exactly the same thing. They want to provide their people opportunity, education, discipline when necessary, build their self-confidence, give them the opportunity to try and fail, all so that they could achieve more than we could ever imagine for ourselves. Charlie Kim, who’s the CEO of a company called Next Jump in New York City, a tech company, he makes the point that if you had hard times in your family, would you ever consider laying off one of your children? We would never do it.
Then why do we consider laying off people inside our organization? Charlie implemented a policy of lifetime employment. If you get a job at Next Jump, you cannot get fired for performance issues. In fact, if you have issues, they will coach you and they will give you support, just like we would with one of our children who happens to come home with a C from school. It’s the complete opposite. This is the reason so many people have such a visceral hatred, anger, at some of these banking CEOs with their disproportionate salaries and bonus structures. It’s not the numbers. It’s that they have violated the very definition of leadership. They have violated this deep-seated social contract. We know that they allowed their people to be sacrificed so they could protect their own interests, or worse, they sacrificed their people to protect their own interests. This is what so offends us, not the numbers.
Would anybody be offended if we gave a $150 million bonus to Gandhi? How about a $250 million bonus to Mother Teresa? Do we have an issue with that? None at all. None at all. Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers. They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Bob Chapman, who runs a large manufacturing company in the Midwest called Barry-Wehmiller, in 2008 was hit very hard by the recession, and they lost 30 percent of their orders overnight. Now in a large manufacturing company, this is a big deal, and they could no longer afford their labor pool. They needed to save 10 million dollars, so, like so many companies today, the board got together and discussed layoffs. And Bob refused. You see, Bob doesn’t believe in head counts.
Bob believes in heart counts, and it’s much more difficult to simply reduce the heart count. And so they came up with a furlough program. Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how Bob announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot, and morale went up. They saved 20 million dollars, and most importantly, as would be expected, when the people feel safe and protected by the leadership in the organization, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate.
And quite spontaneously, nobody expected, people started trading with each other. Those who could afford it more would trade with those who could afford it less. People would take five weeks so that somebody else only had to take three. Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the seniormost levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations who have no authority and they are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.
I heard a story of some Marines who were out in theater, and as is the Marine custom, the officer ate last, and he let his men eat first, and when they were done, there was no food left for him. And when they went back out in the field, his men brought him some of their food so that he may eat, because that’s what happens. We call them leaders because they go first. We call them leaders because they take the risk before anybody else does. We call them leaders because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected and so their people may gain, and when we do, the natural response is that our people will sacrifice for us.
They will give us their blood and sweat and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life, and when we ask them, “Why would you do that? Why would you give your blood and sweat and tears for that person?” they all say the same thing: “Because they would have done it for me.” And isn’t that the organization we would all like to work in? Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause).