Underrated Leaders

comment 1
philosophy
Without LBJ, there would be no civil rights act

If you live a long enough life, you’ll meet an innumerable amount of people, from all walks of life. I want to focus on those who you’ll skip over the first time around; the person who you don’t originally understand or comprehend the actions. They could be vastly different to you. Maybe they’re unnaturally brilliant or they’re phenomenally well-traveled, or are social savants. Any of these qualities at a young age especially sets you apart. But, that often makes you underrated.

In a business framework, what this means is that the people you initially hire create the river of your company. Patrick Collison astutely found:

“The reason why the first 10 employees are the most important is every one of those 10 employees is going to replicate him or herself 10 times.”

System-1 thinking would tell us that we can always fix this sort of debt later, perhaps that procrastinating on the people we surround ourselves with doesn’t matter as much as we think. However, it might be the most important one that we make.

One strategy that I use to meet new people is to meet those considered controversial by others. Why optimize for this? The inventors behind the greatest businesses of the 21st century – Airbnb, Uber, Tesla, SpaceX, et al. – all knew something that everyone else didn’t. Would you really let your son or daughter into a stranger’s car? Unimaginable in the 1990s, but you definitely would 20 years later.

Let’s take an unorthodox example. Lyndon Johnson grew up in one of the most impoverished areas in the United States, in sheer poverty, but rises up to become President. He wasn’t just any president; if not for Johnson, civil rights in America would have been delayed decades longer. He said that it would cost the Democrats the white vote for a generation, but continued on his missions irrespective.

The evening he passed the civil rights act, just 10 days after the murders, the journalist Bill Moyers wrote that he “found [Johnson] in a melancholy mood … I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the south to the Republican party for a long time to come,’ he said.”

He died at 64, feeling decrepit and abused by the American media. As Robert Caro divulges in his biographies, encompassing over 40 years of research on LBJ:

“I’m fascinated by Johnson. If you don’t like me you say I’m obsessed,” Caro says. “We’re taught Lord Acton’s axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believed that when I started these books, but I don’t believe it’s always true any more.

Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.

From comedian Jack Bernhardt:

“In today’s climate, where politics is portrayed as a game of winners and losers and not as a system designed to benefit the actual population, there’s something inspirational about Lyndon Johnson. That’s not to say that he didn’t care about optics. He was an incessantly vain man, constantly measuring his achievements against those of former presidents, and feeling inferior.

Indeed, there is something tragically ironic that a man as thirsty for glory as Johnson could achieve as much as he did and yet still be a relative unknown in popular culture compared with Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Nixon.”

Yet, there are indeed ways to escape the realm of obscurity. Keith Rabois, for instance, urges smart people to publish, bringing up the example of Stratechery. Its author, Ben Thompson, lives in Taiwan but still publishes an unparalleled quality of tech strategy everyday. 50 years ago, nobody would have known his name; he did not live in the “right” area to be considered great. Today, this information would simply raise a few eyebrows.

We can spend our days worrying that people don’t give us enough credit or that we’re under-appreciated. Many of us do, but Charlie Munger has a solution for envy and resentment: those surefire ways of living unhappily.

“Disraeli, as he rose to become one of the greatest Prime Ministers, learned to give up vengeance as a motivation for action, but he did retain some outlet for resentment by putting the names of people who wronged him on pieces of paper in a drawer. Then, from time to time, he reviewed these names and took pleasure in noting the way the world had taken his enemies down without his assistance.

Writing my thesis on the modern state of global innovation has enlarged my view on the matter. Nobel prize winners in the sciences rarely publish their best work after their first prize or later in life. The reason? They push themselves to work on problems that are deemed Nobel worthy. And as we know, the prize comes from the pleasure of finding things out rather than the sexiest issue at hand. Secondly, the most “disruptive” research in science arises commonly in these small groups. Empirically, ground-breaking accomplishments have generally taken a handful of people rather than the science complex we’re seeing with thousands of researchers working on one task.

Start-ups, politics, and science are intrinsically linked. What is fascinating though is the same technique wins in all of them, embracing individuality and rejecting group-think.

The Author

Some musings about tech + philosophy + econ.

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