Travis Smith: my resume, bio and photos back to the main blog page

Mandy makes the brilliant point that if I want people to know if my email switch worked, I need to blog something so that people will either get sent something or not.  Of course, Mandy’s a little behind on her blogging so maybe she’s just projecting. (I kid!)

Still, she has a good point, so let me share what I’m thinking about today.

I’ve sometimes been envious of “natural” leaders.  You know the type.  Get a group of people together, give them some sort of problem or challenge to solve, and one person will float into the leader position, just like M&Ms float to the top of a bag of trail mix.

This isn’t always a good thing.  Just because someone has a natural “leadership” aura, he or she might not be the most qualified at the particular task at hand, or might not be the best one to handle the group dynamics of the followers.

This happened recently in a game with my Ultimate team.  Of the seven people I took the field with, one was a natural leader, but his suggestions for how to handle the opposing team were often incorrect, while the insights of another, less “magnetic” team mate were much more accurate, but tended to be ignored by the group.

(No, I’m not talking about me in either case—I’m usually too busy just trying to catch and throw to strategize.)

There’s another type of leader, though; this person doesn’t have the innate (or even learned) ability to sway groups of people, so they figure out other ways to advance their goals.  This is the leader that’s sometimes called “the power behind the throne.”

I’ve never liked the “power behind the throne” metaphor.  It seems too shadowy, too devious—and it equates the leader with a single king, when in many situations, there is no leader, or there are many leaders, or the leader is a perfectly legitimate one.

I prefer to describe this other type of leader as a “marble maze” leader.  You know the toy I’m talking about—start with a wooden box, build a small maze on top, then roll a marble through the maze, avoiding the holes along the way.  The “marble maze” leader is the one that puts the ball (the goal) in motion, and nudges it left and right, avoiding pitfalls and keeping the goal on the best possible path.

For the “marble maze” leader, one tactic is to figure out who the one person they need to influence is, and concentrate their energy there.  But that’s just one technique.  More often, I think, this leader just uses efficiency and reinforcement to achieve consistent incremental change.

For example, when I worked at Variety, I knew that the Web site’s efforts were often overlooked in the daily rush of deadlines.  I wanted a way to make sure that people paid attention to what was happening on the Web site.

So I used two simple techniques.  The first was, I built a handy internal home page for the newspaper’s staff.  It had several useful search boxes, it loaded super fast, it had staff directories and important phone numbers, and whenever there was a staff announcement (like free lunches available in the conference room) I made sure to post it there.  Then I used it from time to time to announce Web site activities, too.

Second, I made sure that there was a small bowl of quality candy right in the center of the Web site’s area.  When people got hungry, they knew that they could pretty much count on coming by the Web desk and they’d get a snack.  Sure, I put on 10 pounds, but it was worth it in terms of the daily contact it gave me with people from all over the organization.

The second type of leader isn’t someone you see much in popular culture these days.  Television emphasizes the magnetic leader over the influential leader.  But the Internet is the domain of the influencer.  It’s where you get a chance to nudge almost anyone—send them an email, make a comment, take an idea and reshape it and give it back.

Overheard

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?

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