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!

photo (9)

To the reluctant leaders: help us help you.

I’ve noticed an alarming trend in some potentially great people I’ve encountered recently. It is a certain kind of shyness, a hesitance to ask for help and support for their cause.

If you are someone who is working on something you believe in, and I mean something you seriously believe in, perhaps you can relate to this phenomenon. It’s as if asking for help is placing an unnecessary burden on others; as if it’s selfish.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The world is in desperate need of bold leadership, and many of us are waiting on the sidelines just teeming with untapped potential.

Look at what happened with the campaign to help Amit and all South Asians with Leukemia. Millions of people worldwide were touched by Amit’s story, with thousands organizing donor drives, donating money for tests, and spreading the word. These were all people who had other things to do, but when truly inspired and properly empowered they found the time and the energy to participate in doing something that has, over time, generated a huge impact.

Look at HackNY, an organization whose mission is the kind of thing so many have talked about but few have stepped up to actually do something about. They raised $100,000 in one night because they had the guts to ask for it. They got the most prominent members of the NY tech community to parade down a runway in the name of helping their cause, simply because they bothered to ask.

You don’t need to be a nonprofit to ask for help. For-profit businesses don’t have to be evil profit-hungry monsters; indeed, more and more companies are being started every day with missions we’d want to support and be a part of. For-profit companies are born every day on Kickstarter on a bed of donations from their first and future customers.

You don’t even need a business entity to ask for and receive help.┬áIf a person told me they were obsessed with reforming education and had a plan to help local teachers and demonstrated their passion with all their might, I’d give them help point blank.

I would never bet against the resourcefulness of a person who has dedicated themselves to something they truly believe in.

We may be short on jobs, but there is no shortage of work to be done. We can get more women into technology. We can revolutionize education as we know it. We can fundamentally reshape the workforce. We can find more sustainable ways to live and coexist. We can’t wait for someone else to do it; we have to do it ourselves.

If you want to do something that makes the world better, don’t be shy. Own it. You may be surprised just how many people are out there waiting for you to lead them.