Seth Godin on How to Become a Linchpin Leader

“You have been brainwashed by school and by the system into believing that your job is to do your job and follow instructions. It’s not, not anymore. If your career is not doing as well as you’d hoped, perhaps it’s because the rules of the game changed, and no one told you. You can train yourself to matter – become a Linchpin leader.” – Seth Godin

Ask Seth Godin how we can be indispensable at work. His answer: “Be a linchpin.” Godin defines linchpin as a “human being who is doing original, brave work; a person who we would have trouble living without. Somebody whom we would miss if they were gone.” Godin says we have a paucity of linchpins due to the effects of industrial economy we’re in. In this industrial system, people act like mechanized cogs. The ideal employee in an industrial system is someone who is extremely compliant, meets specifications, and is very productive. In a post-industrial age, there’s little advantage here since the industrialist will always look for someone cheaper to do it. Rather, Value is being created by people who can do something that other people can’t do. Value is being created by people who see something that other people can’t see.

Here’s six key points that illustrates linchpin leadership followed by six principles on how to be a linchpin leader.

What is Linchpin Leadership?

1. The Linchpin is a human being who is doing original, brave work; a person who we would have trouble living without; this is the kind of person who does not follow the map but actually makes the map.

2. The Linchpin often feels isolated and alone because we have been indoctrinated from an early age by the industrial schooling system to believe that compliance is prized higher than insurgency or insubordination.

3. Industrial organizations are all about authority and denying responsibility. The Linchpin makes changes by taking responsibility even when he or she does not have to. The Linchpin never demands authority. Instead, the Linchpin earns the privilege by leading from the bottom up because people respect your mission – not because people got a memo saying that they should do what you say.

4. The Linchpin realizes that the industrial mindset affects almost everything in our whole lives, from education to family structure to the way we make a living. Most people hear a voice in their head telling them that they may not go forward – it is not a success unless someone picks you. It is not real. The end of the industrial revolution is – pick yourself.

5. There are lots of ways the Linchpin picks himself or herself, and one part of the way is not enraging people with power so that they get in your way. The Linchpin chooses to be the one who is making a difference and then skillfully navigates the system so that it does make a difference. As a Linchpin, you have to figure out the following:

  • What are the people you work for keeping score of?
  • What stories do they tell themselves?
  • What, to them, does success look like?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What are they are looking for?

6. If you are fortunate enough to have a steady paycheck and work for an existing organization that has assets,  and they are giving you the freedom to try stuff, how dare you sit at your desk and wait for instructions. The Linchpin takes reasonable risks, looks for and finds, at the very least, the smallest little step in any direction but where that step signifies that, “This might not work.”

Six Principles on Becoming a Linchpin Leader

Principle 1: As a Linchpin operating in a matrix environment, we realize that we are no longer working in an industrial economy. The institutions we work in have been heavily influenced by an environment that demands that people act like cogs in an industrial system. The ideal employee in an industrial system is extremely compliant, meets spec, and is very productive. While in a post-industrial age, there is very little upside in that sort of behavior. Anything you can do that has been written down, an industrialist or boss can find someone cheaper to do it.

Principle 2: Linchpins realize that value is being created by people who do something that other people cannot do. Value is being created by people who see something that bother people cannot see.

Principle 3: To drive change, the Linchpin should try to make minor impacts at first. If you make enough minor impact, it mounts up to a major impact. Major impact is almost impossible to make in a previously industrial setting. Drive change but do not enrage people with power so that they get in your way. Instead, choose to be the one who is making a difference and then navigate the system in front of you so that it does make a difference.

Principle 4: In typical organizations where Linchpins have a chance to be a leader, the Linchpin can start by identifying 30 or more people who are at or near his/her level, celebrate their best work, connect them to one another, organize meetings, exchange information, and work on “guerilla projects” off the radar.

Principle 5: “This might not work” is what Linchpins say to themselves. People who are mere cogs never say this to themselves. A cog never has to say, “This might not work,” because that is the benefit of doing what you are told. If it does not work, it is not your fault. What a Linchpin does is live the statement, “This might not work . . . but I’m willing to do it.”

Principle 6: As a Linchpin, assess the organizational politics and system dynamics as you walk into chaos and create order, invent, connect, create and make things happen. Remember that you are someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And you take this commitment, this mission, personally.

Hall, George. Linchpin Leadership. OD Practitioner Vol 45 N.4 (2013)