Being a Tall Poppy

While visiting the fabulously charming southeast coast of Australia this past month, I was introduced to the notion of Tall Poppy Syndrome. It’s borne of the notion that he who stands out from the rest elevates himself above his peers– and should be castigated for doing so.

The tall poppy is the first to get cut down.

It’s spoken about as a fact of life, but also with a sense that it’s unfortunate. Individuals, it seems, recognize the absurdity of the culture, but perhaps as a case in point, few seem willing to stand in opposition to it.

This cultural inclination against standing out and being a leader is, of course, stifling to a society’s potential for growth and innovation. But we have an opportunity now to re-think the dynamic.

Entrepreneurship in the old system was based on a leader building a hierarchy around a centralized brand. The leader, naturally, sat at the top, in charge of the whole operation; the tallest poppy of them all.

Now, we see a transition forming away from a hierarchical culture towards a more networked, belief-focused culture. From open source projects to Meetup groups, people are increasingly investing in and participating in efforts that focus less on the charm and prowess of the individual leader and more on the shared capability of everyone who shares a common interest.

Ambition, in other words, becomes less about becoming a tall poppy and more about designing ways for all the poppies to grow better together.

I wonder, then, as this trend continues: might cultures that reject the tall poppies have an opportunity, now, to embrace those who seek to make the world around them better? If aspirational future leaders growing up in these parts of the world start to find ways to channel their energy into building communities and movements instead of traditional hierarchies, and still be rewarded for doing so, might they be more likely to step up without fear of isolation?

I hope so!

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  • Nicolas B.

    More than anything else to me, this is what China has experienced since the 1950’s. Mao’s doctrines were similar to the Tall Poppy Syndrom (heads were cut though). It slowly ends up in early 1990’s when Deng Xiaoping uttered his famous “Enrich yourself” opening the doors to freely – more or less – express oneself which is the first step to embrace one’s way. Empathy, then, is near. What is interesting about China is the potential of ambitious people wishing poppies to grow better together.

    Thank’s for this, Tony.

    • Tony Bacigalupo

      Good point Nicholas. As I think about it more, what’s interesting is that the individualist culture of the 20th century (in the US at least) is in a state of transition now, perhaps converging on a more sophisticated model that marries the solo mentality with the group mentality.