What Seth Godin Wishes He Knew about Leadership

January 26, 2010

Leader Seth Godin at Around 18, and Now.

For my upcoming book, What I Wish I Knew about Leadership in the 21st Century, I interviewed Best Selling Author, Seth Godin, who is extraordinary thought leader and the writer of the most popular blog in the world. That’s in the world people.

I “met” Seth Godin when we “shared” the stage at a Thought Leaders Conference in Sydney. I’m using quotation marks because I was live on stage, and Seth Skyped in a video call from New York. To make sure he could hear the crowd in Sydney, Seth gave his speech with enormous, soundproofing earphones sticking up from his noggin and was very calm and understanding when the line dropped out repeatedly. I was immediately impressed by his peaceful, humorous way of leading the crowd.

When I interview Seth, he was an incredibly busy man as he was only days away from the launch of his latest best seller, Linchpin.

N.B. When you read this interview, notice how classy the guy is – I interview him for my book, and he doesn’t even try and plug his new release once. Not once. (So I give it a big rap for him it at the end of this blog. But don’t believe my opinion, check out the other rave reviews at Linchpin’s squidoo lens here www.squidoo.com/the-Linchpin-Posts)

I began my interview, as I always do, by acknowledging how ridiculous the fictitious premise of my books is – going back and giving your younger self some advice – but pushed on regardless to ask Seth what he thought about leadership and authority as a youngster?

I had no understanding of the difference between authority and leadership.

“When I was 18” he answers “I had no understanding of the difference between authority and leadership. I think most high school graduates are in the same boat. I was really good at following authority figures most of the time. I was lousy at leading. Being smart and being persuasive don’t always go hand in hand, and I had no luck being persuasive.

If that was the case, I asked, from where did he eventually learn about leadership?

“I learned it at Camp Arowhon, the oldest co-ed summer camp in North America. From 18, I was the canoeing instructor but, compared to sailing and windsurfing, canoeing is hard, tiring and not so good for your ego. The hundreds of kids I was marketing my program to had a choice every day, and their choice was to ignore me and go sailing instead.

So, I had to figure out how to entreat and encourage and persuade, because I couldn’t order people to follow me. The great thing about this place as a lab was that I had a lot of freedom, there was obviously no budget nor anything to spend money on, and I found out within minutes if my ideas were working or not.

I was in a situation where leadership was essential and failure was painless.

The key lesson here isn’t that you need to go to camp, or teach canoeing. My point is that I was in a situation where leadership was essential and failure was painless. That’s a great combination.

I ask if leading a tribe or being a thought leader always in the plan?

Seth laughs and says: “Believe it or not, I decided to do what I do now when I was 20 years old. Amazing.”

“But if I think how it’s all turned out, the parts that young me would have been astonished by:

1. the hair thing (I had a 4 inch long afro)

2. the magic of a blog that people read and react to.”

“I’ve always been motivated by projects and by change, and having the ability to create those things is a thrill that hasn’t worn off.”

I ask if that’s the thrill, what’s been hard?

My biggest weakness … is my desire for no one to be angry.

“My biggest weakness as a leader is my desire for no one to be angry. That really hinders my ability to make a difference. In a group of 100 people, five will always be angry about something. If you’re going to try to please this unknown group of five in advance, you’ll end up being boring and stuck.”

“So the challenge is to pick the work that matters enough that it’s actually worth annoying people. That, and insulating yourself from casual hallway grumbling. A fly on the wall might hear everything, but at the end of the day he still eats a lot of horse dung.”

“Fortunately I’ve realised that as I get older I have a lot less to prove and a lot more to accomplish. When you’re willing to give other people credit, you can get a lot more done, and when you spend time glorifying the work of your tribe, you can make far more things happen.”

Leading is the ultimate form of marketing

“Although it’s true that leading is the ultimate form of marketing, it’s also art and a gift at the same time. It’s a craft that has no useful manual, that’s different every day and that changes people for the better. Most people don’t understand that when they set out to lead, but the fact is, it’s a highly leveraged way to help people.”

I mention that “It sounds like you’ve learnt a lot about people.”

“Most people are wise and generous and insightful. Some people are scared. Scared people are often contemptuous, insular, selfish and difficult. A key part of leading is seeing the fear and assuaging it before you ask for change, because fear is the king of emotions.”

What kind of fears? I ask.

It’s way easier to be brave and visionary and gutsy when this week’s rent is already paid.

Cash flow really matters, for example. It’s way easier to be brave and visionary and gutsy when this week’s rent is already paid. That doesn’t mean you need to make more. It means you need to spend less. Live on brown rice and black beans until you have enough cushion to be able to lead with guts.

Being able to fail is the key. The person who fails the most learns the most. I guess the thing I’ve learned the most is that failure is a good thing.

I’ve launched about 40 ideas a year for the last twenty years, give or take. Figure 800 significant (or not so significant) projects. And I fail about 20% of the time. So that’s 160 total screw ups, game-ending messes, nail-biting failures.

Gotta love that.

I ask Seth who’s leadership he admires.

“I admire what Jacqueline Novogratz at Acumen Fund has done, and the way she does it. I think her combination of passion, respect and kindness, combined with an unflappable sense of self permits her to connect with people at a molecular level.

She patiently pursues her goal, drip by drip, step by step, bringing people along instead of closing them out. She sets enormous goals and then works harder than anyone on her team to meet them.

She understands that her work is her art.

Most of all, she understands that her work is her art. She brings such grace to the cause that people can’t help but come along.”

And finally, I ask Seth, if he could give 18-year-olds of today the gift of his hindsight what would he say?

Don’t work so hard to fit in. Work harder to stand out.  And get a hair cut! (Just kidding about the last part).

Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, is released on Amazon today and it is like his other books – beautifully written while being easy to read at the same time – but it’s also different. He is really getting into a more personal leadership space and this new garb fits him very well. Most of his books are very intelligent “How to” but this is a very passionate “Why to” and I love it. If you want to carry on ignoring that little voice that begs you to live a larger life – do not buy this book. If, on the other hand, you want that little extra dose of courage to face your newfeeling and “do that thing you think you can’t do” buy Linchpin. Be warned, your life will change.

One Response to “What Seth Godin Wishes He Knew about Leadership”


  1. [...] an interview by Marty Wilson on his blog, Marty Wilson’s Blog, best-selling author Seth Godin offers this advice on leadership [...]


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