In Praise of Seth Godin's 'Linchpin'

Marketing Guru's Latest Touts the Need to Be Indispensable

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Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
Seth Godin's "Linchpin" is a remarkable book. You should buy a copy. Unless, of course, you're enjoying that rut you're in.

First of all, let's acknowledge that Seth is a polarizing figure. He is the god of small business, and his books, such as "Permission Marketing," have transformed the way people think about marketing. But they are written to persuade and inspire, and rarely have the kind of the gritty proof and statistics that hard-edged businesspeople demand. This provokes many leading business thinkers to write him off.

The kind of impassioned plea that Seth writes doesn't work if you don't buy the original premise. As a result, some recent efforts, such as "Meatball Sundae" and "Tribes," haven't really hit the mark. But "Linchpin" does, in my opinion. I think Seth has discovered a fundamental truth about work.

Seth's premise is that today's organizational structure is a throwback to the days of factories, with interchangeable parts and interchangeable workers. Basically, this means that if you do your job as you're told, then you're easy to replace. Seth wants you to "become indispensable" instead.

There are several elements to this. First, you need to make a choice -- wake up and stop being a sheep. Second, you need to do your work as a gift -- as art -- because it makes you happier, not just to please your boss. Third, you need to triumph over your lizard brain -- the part that wants you to conform and avoid dangerous actions that might make you stand out. Fourth, what you start or imagine doesn't matter -- a real linchpin ships products, completes the task.

Notice how banal this sounds as I write it out. But this is a radical message, and Seth is the most talented business writer there is. Here are some excerpts from the two dozen pages I dog-eared (these paragraphs are from all over the book):

[The Boss's Lie:] "What I want is someone who will do what I tell them to." "What I want is someone who works cheap." "What I want is someone who shows up on time and doesn't give me a hard time." So if this is what the boss really wants, how come the stars in the company don't follow these three rules? ...

[On work as art] "Art [in this context] is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another. ... I think it's art when a great customer service person uses a conversation to convert an angry person into a raving fan. And it's art when Craig Newmark invents a new business model that uses the Internet to revolutionize classifieds." ...

Nobody cares how hard you worked. It's not an effort contest, it's an art contest. As customers, we care about ourselves, about how we feel, about whether a product or service or play or interaction changed us for the better.

The future of your organization depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked-for gifts of emotional labor. And worse yet, the harder you work to quantify and manipulate this process, the more poorly it will work. ...

[On the beginnings and ends of projects.] Get scared early, not late. Be brave early, not late. Thrash now, not later. It's too expensive to thrash later.

The resistance [also known as complacency] would like you to curl up in a corner, avoid all threats, take no risks, and hide. It feels safe, after all. The paradox is that the more you hide, the riskier it is.

In my mind, one of the most valuable things in this book is a chart on page 181. There are two axes. The x-axis goes from passive to passionate. The y-axis goes from attachment (that is, inflexible dedication to your own worldview) to discernment (knowing what to live with and what to seek change in). I would call that y-axis "wisdom." Seth wants you to aim for the upper right, high passion plus high wisdom, the realm of the linchpin.

From my years of experience working with people, passion is a trait most visible in the young. Wisdom is a trait that is more visible in people who are more experienced. This is why there are so few wise and passionate linchpins. Seth would never be so crass as to typecast people by age, but I know there are plenty of experienced and wise but passive people (he calls them bureaucrats, you know the type) and plenty of young, passionate and inflexible people (he calls them fundamentalist zealots). This is why the wise, passionate person stands out.

The real reason I like this book is that after nearly 30 years of work I have arrived in a place Seth would describe as a linchpin, and I am loving it. I have always been as passionate and creative as I can, just to amuse myself. Why work if it's boring? This is a childish quality, but I retain it at age 51. On the other hand, I have learned some discernment that I sure didn't have in 1982. Every quarter, my boss (and I have had many) sets goals with me related to what the company needs. At the end of the quarter, often what I accomplish is very different from what we thought would be useful. But typically, that boss looks at what I did and says, "That was what we needed," and rewards me anyway. I cannot be a cog, and fortunately, they have recognized that a cog is not what they need. In the long term, all of my success so far has come from this sort of thinking.

I thought of some of my younger colleagues as I read this book, working so hard to live up to what their bosses have told them they should be doing. Some of them do exactly as they are told. That's pretty dull. Some of them try to work longer hours to accomplish all the grunt work they have on their plates. They're frustrated. Some of them identify ways to contribute that nobody ever thought of, generate new ideas and stand out for their creativity. The best do that even as they get the regular work done. I am drawn to them. They learn fast and often go far. Because being a linchpin is a blast.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Bernoff is co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at blogs.forrester.com/groundswell.
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