The Paradox Of Leadership

Posted by

When you’re right, you’re a hero. When you take a misstep, you’re a goat.

There’s an often discussed paradox of leadership that attempts to quantify which trait is more important for business: being the first or being the best? The challenge (which seems rather obvious to me) is that everyone would chose to be the best (if given the choice), but it’s hard to find any real data to suggest that the majority of those who are considered "the best" are the ones who were not the first (the leaders), but rather those who sat back and waited for the market to mature before swooping in and taking control of it.

It’s also easy to be an armchair quarterback.

Chris Brogan just launched his latest business book, Google+ For Business – How Google’s Social Network Changes Everything. I’m not sure why, but Brogan is a lightning rod for opposing views (maybe it’s one of the reasons we like him so much on the Media Hacks Podcast). When he first announced the book, he took some heat (see: Beware the Google+ Experts) and he’s taking more heat as it rolls out into the marketplace (see: Would Chris Brogan Take It Back If He Could?). In that last Blog post, Craig Peters ends his thoughts with, "My advice: Calm down. Let the slightly significant something be absorbed by both the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. Then step back and take a look and see if it’s worth all that and a bag of chips. Takeaway for marketers: Sometimes being the best is better than being the first."

Remember: someone needs to be at the edge.

I don’t know if Google+ is the next big thing. Regardless, I don’t think Chris is going to have to find another career should this book not sell as much as the New York Times best-selling business book, Trust Agents (which he co-authored with Julien Smith). I also don’t think that the success of Google+ is the leading indicator as to whether or not someone should write a book about this new platform and what it could mean to a business. As a platform, we’re comparing Google+ to Facebook and Twitter but forgetting that if Google deploys Google+ throughout all of their platforms (Gmail, Android, YouTube, etc…) it could well become a part of our daily connecting with one another – whether we like it or not. Is Google+ a raging success? No. Is it adding new members each and every day? Yes. Is it taking off like Facebook has? It may be a little too early to tell.

Lead or be led.

I don’t think that Chris is betting on Google+ so much as he is betting on being a leader in this New Media space. Love Chris Brogan or hate Chris Brogan, his posture and business positioning is all about leadership in these connected channels. It’s not about sitting idly by and then – suddenly – when Twitter becomes popular to jump all over it. He’s the early settler… the one who is clearing the path for the rest of us. It’s easy to call these people crazy or misinformed (imagine what everyone must have thought of Christopher Columbus in the 1400s). No, Chris is no Christopher Columbus, but he does walk the talk. He gets in early, explores, spends the time, pushes to see what it all means to businesses and shares what he’s thinking in such a candid way, that those who aren’t aligned are quick to pounce. Of course he won’t always be right (don’t get me started on how wrong I was about Second Life, YouTube and others), but isn’t that the point?

Great leaders are rarely lauded for their efforts in the moment.

It’s too bad that we’re so quick to dismiss and not applaud those who take a leadership position. Do you remember what people said about Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and even Google in the early days? Do you remember what people said about MySpace, Cuil and Friendster in the early days? The discourse was (pretty much) the same: no one could see the business or business model. Do you think we would have had half of the innovations that have changed our lives had leaders sat back and not tried to be first in their market? Maybe we should all wait for market research or a white paper before moving forward? The point is that the majority of people will sit back and wait for something to prove itself before moving forward, but there’s also a handful of people who must take the risks and lead for us.

My takeaways for Marketers: It’s ok if you’re not willing to take the risks. A lot of those risk-takers will be wrong. That being said, our industry needs more innovation and risk-takers.


  1. Reminds me of this Emerson quote on leadership: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
    Right or wrong, someone’s gotta do it. And thank god those people aren’t afraid of looking foolish. They take the risks 99% of the population isn’t ready to take. And hopefully, they’re humble enough to know that they might end up looking foolish at least part of the time, because no one is perfect.
    Don’t tell all the naysayers, but a real leader could care less.

  2. As a matter of fact, there is no need to be a Chris Brogan hater yet. G+ hi-ranked hype helped close the book deal. Fine for Chris. But I have a hunch the book’s title isn’t his own. All his wordings, in his post as well as in the table of content, are carefully nuanced: “The opportunity of G+”, “Is your business ready for Google+?”, or “Are you preparing yourself for more sale”. Which let me think that the book editor is more to blame here. Title is like spices: carefully weight it to match the content, not to hide it.

  3. Here’s what cracks me up:
    If you wait until a new service is “proven,” it will be MUCH harder to make that service work for you and your business.
    When a service is “proven,” the number of competitors on the service SKYROCKETS.
    However, when the service is a test bed, much like Google + is right now, going all in may pose high risk, but on the flip side, you’ve also got the chance for tremendous gains.
    I like to look at new services like Google + like hot new stocks.
    If you wait until the stock goes up, you’ve already lost your chance for significant, exponential gains on your money.
    If you jump in when it’s hot and new, you’ve got risk, but you can mitigate that by making your investment part of your portfolio… not the whole thing.

  4. The Chris I have seen is all about cashing in Mitch. He is the first to write a Google+ book because he knows there is a ripe market for it. Love him or hate him there is no question he is a bright and insightful guy, many copies will be sold. He is your friend and you always stick up for him. I applaud you for that, you are the kind of friend anyone would be lucky to have.

  5. Excellent post with excellent points. Personally I think certain people choose to get themselves all worked up over nothing. I like Chris and the way he’s geared around taking action instead of just sitting on the sidelines. It’s one thing to talk about the game and entirely something else to actually play it.

  6. Mitch, your arguments make perfect sense. And in fact by being first you have a significant edge in being considered best. You set the yardstick by which everyone else if measured. I have not really embraced Google plus, but I do acknowledge that there is a clear need for this book. For those of use who are not leading the pack.

  7. For the record, I don’t always agree with everything Chris says and does, but I have a huge admiration for the action he takes. We both released our first books at around the same time. He’s published three books and his forth is being worked on… It says something. It says a lot!

  8. …and some businesses just want to read a book like this to not only understand what it is, but perhaps to not join. I’ve always loved the idea that sometimes the best business plans are the ones that tell you not to go into business. A primer on Google+ for business may be just the thing that many brands need to know enough to realize that it’s not for them.

  9. I would luv to get Chris’ hate mail. There are those that do, those that watch, and those that say ‘what the hell happened’. The do’ers take flack from the other two, it’s in their nature.
    Chris is a doer. Nuff said…

  10. I don’t have an opinion on Brogan or the book, but the sense I get from reading others’ take on him/it is that the question isn’t about “cashing in”, it’s about when that becomes “selling out.”

  11. It says he is prolific, and that’s all. The merits of each book’s content would have to be examined in order to determine more than that.
    Is one lasting thought leadership contribution to the literature more or less valuable than multiple publications that may or may not be as profound? Who decides?
    Godin is prolific as well. He seems content to always be at the plate swinging, regardless of whether he gets a base hit, a home run, or strikes out. It’s not right or wrong, better or worse, it’s just an approach.

  12. In a previous life, I interviewed the rock band, Metallica. I asked them how they respond to both fans and critics who say that they have “sold out.” I think it was Jason Newsted (then bassist) who said, “we do sell out… each and every night that we play.” Metallica just celebrated 30 years of music. We can debate the merits of each and every song/album, but it’s hard to deny their career – success and longevity. My point? There will always be someone, somewhere accusing someone else of selling out. My guess is that as long as the person who is accused of being a sell out can look themselves in the mirror, get a good night’s rest and feel good about their choices in their life and the legacy that they will leave, it’s hard for someone else to label them a “sell out.”

  13. I would say that it’s prolific plus growth. Both Seth, Chris and others continue to build their brands and businesses. I do know others who are prolific but have no traction… which is a completely different story.

  14. Totally agree with your final point, about leaders being risk takers and often ahead of their time. One of my bosses is a very good entrepreneur, a real risk taker and someone i can’t fully understand at times. I’m naturally quite cautious, but if i want to become a leader and someone always striding forward, then i need to learn to take risks.
    Playing it steady only takes you so far, so i always have respect for those willing to go all out. Will it sometimes end in massive failure? sure, but at least they had the balls to try
    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  15. I couldn’t agree more, Mitch. We do need more risk takers and with Chris Brogan’s track record, I am quite certain that latest his G+ adventure is a calculated risk. I vividly recall that since G+ saw the light, Chris devoured it with the full meaning of the word. He excessively blogged about it like no other expert did. I am guessing that he stumbled upon some G+ untapped treasures that would position him as the first and the best leader. Let’s wait and see!

  16. I think it is even simpler than leadership. It is just taking an opinion on something. Way too many people wait around to see which way the wind is blowing before deciding on supporting something, whether it is a sports team, a technology or a business. Just make an informed decision and state it. The so-called experts are wrong half the time, they are just the ones brave enough to state their opinion.

  17. This is exactly what I find so mind-boggling Mitch. From the logic so many are using, I guess all of us are simply ‘cashing-in’. I’m guessing David Meerman Scott, who really wrote one of the first social media books, was cashing in too.
    If someone is delivering value (and readers define value btw, not ‘experts’), who the heck cares whether they’re the first, middle, or last to write on the subject?
    Honestly, I’m sick of hearing people complain about Chris Brogan. Many of them are jealous. Most don’t know him very well. If they did, they wouldn’t bash the guy for having guts and blazing his own trail.
    I’ve publicly agreed and disagreed with Chris on my blog before, but the guy has no problem debating topics with folks who can detach emotionally and just discuss the facts for what they are.
    Just goes to show leaders will always be attacked, no matter the field.

  18. I wish I had written this post, as so often happens when I read what you have to say. I disagree with a lot of what Chris says and does, but I absolutely honor him as a pioneer who is TRYING and pushing things in a new direction. I think many bloggers take for granted many of the strategies and best practices we have but they had to start somewhere and more often than not Brogan was involved at some point.
    Keep pushing Chris. Even when you stumble, we’re all learning.

  19. To paraphrase that Steve Jobs guy, who I hear was pretty smart, Chris would prefer to sell sugar water instead of change the world. Nothing wrong with that at all. But, the deity and expert status you and others apply to him is nothing short of tragic. We need less Chris Brogan’s, not more. We need less hype, less link-baiters, less pseudo-intellectuals who lack the real world scars from genuine experience. As you eloquently wrote Mitch, “That being said, our industry needs more innovation and risk-takers.” Where is the innovation coming from in Chris’ approach or the book? And more importantly, where are the risks your taking with regards to the book or Chris’ approach? Your post brilliantly straddles the line, without ever taking a side. It’s reminiscent of GoDaddy’s recent SOPA back-pedaling. The ability to publish books is not impressive in today’s world. The ability to publish something word reading, however, is.

  20. Hey Adam,
    I’m not sure I am understanding your comment. If anything, Chris is a work in progress (as am I). It’s hard to do that in public – especially when you Blog and try to be that connected. I believe that Chris innovates and leads because he’s able to see these channels and platforms (and the business opportunity/application) both early on and long before others. The difference (at least to me) is that he shares his learnings early on (some of it for free and some of it he charges for). I don’t think I’m straddling any lines here either. I don’t always agree with Chris and his outcomes, but I respect the leadership role he assumes – that seems like a pretty clear stance to me (much in the same way that I love Metallica… but not every song, album or concert). As for comparing how I phrased this Blog to GoDaddy and SOPA, I am very lost, so please feel free to explain it more (if you wish).
    Lastly, I do agree with you: the ability to publish books is not impressive. What is impressive is selling books (and lots of them) and getting people to read them, acknowledge the content, apply it and help themselves (which, to me, Chris has done). I always say that publishing and buying a book is easy: it’s the reading it and doing something with the content that is hard.

  21. Greats leaders and innovators don’t always make the best bosses. I used to have a boss who was extremely visionary, but I thought that they hated me. Turns out they were just always locked in their own mind… thinking… doing. I was probably doing a lot of projection.

  22. It’s that stumbling part that makes it impressive to me. Some like to kick those people when they’re down… others (like me) are mostly impressed with the fact that they’re willing to do it so publicly and evolve with things as they flow.

  23. At the risk of appearing to pander to Mitch, I think that there is something important in the original blog post worthy of emphasis. I shared this blog post on Facebook with this comment:
    “Mitch Joel does a truly classy job of defending Chris as an early proponent of Google+. Mitch, you are one thoughtful, intelligent and genuinely classy dude.”
    Mitch has made an exceptional effort, in my opinion, of treating the entire subject in a professional, informative manner. Perhaps as importantly, he never seems to lose track of being sensible and sensitive enough to recognize that it is wise to treat individuals as …..human beings. Even the famous ones, like Chris. This is too often easily forgotten. Enjoyed Bill Laidlaw’s comment above to Mitch (“He is your friend and you always stick up for him. I applaud you for that, you are the kind of friend anyone would be lucky to have”) and I totally enjoyed the read.

  24. It’s funny how a post about leadership and innovation (which used Chris as an example) became a Blog post about whether Chris is legitimate or not. It speaks to how people think and I it also validates my core thought.

  25. Mitch- can we forego the esoteric “work in progress” talk track? Your response clarifies the line straddling comment I made. You see Chris as a leader, a trail blazer…a visionary. I see him more as someone capitalizing and cashing in, rather well in fact, in a vertical that was very wide open. I also see the narrowing happening as more and more organizations are hiring people to make sure snake oil isn’t being purchased. With regards to my SOPA/GoDaddy comment, your original post was very carefully crafted, a la the goDaddy response, so as to not clearly take a side. You offered a balanced commentary, without really taking a side on the decision by Chris to publish a book that is already outdated with the enhancements Google has made to the platform. My stance is clear, it’s ridiculous, but very smart from a financial standpoint. People struggling to keep up, who aren’t as plugged in as you and I, will certainly purchase the book unknowingly, and in doing so will be lead astray while Chris’ pockets get fatter. The comments you’re seeing on twitter and on this post regarding Chris help explain my pov regarding Chris. He’s polarizing for a reason. Because some see him for what he is and others seem him in the light you present him. This type of polarization doesn’t exist with other trailblazers like Seth Godin, Chip Heath or Guy Kawasaki. It’s because their value, smarts, thought leadership and real world results/experience are clear. I think what our industry needs are more people willing to be brutally honest and eliminate the reckless hype that permeates the web. This isn’t leadership, it’s irresponsibility.

  26. Hey Adam,
    What you are offering is an opinion of Chris (one that is probably felt by others). I am, simply, doing the same. Just because they are differing opinions delivered in different styles does not make one “straddling” vs. “brutally honest.” It also doesn’t make one right over another… just differing opinions (which is why I like the discourse online). I still don’t see the SOPA/Go Daddy relation. What you call “carefully crafted to not clearly take a side,” I would call my opinion (or my side) – which you can choose to agree with or not. Who decides if my opinion (or yours) is valid? I would say that the market decides. If the idea spreads and it works for people… then it works – whether I like it or not.
    I can also tell you that there is a ton of polarization with the trailblazers you mentioned above. I’m a part of it daily, the challenge here is that not everyone chooses to Blog or tweet about it (but some do). Your opinion that this type of work is “reckless hype” also indicates to me that we simply see things differently. What you call “reckless hype” I see as an iterative process where individuals are poking at something new to see what it can do, to define if there is merit to it, and to explain what they are uncovering. They’re also willing to be wrong – which is what I admire most and was the core thought of this Blog post.
    The news today is that Google+ is adding 600,000+ new users each day with more than 62 million users ( I think it’s time for businesses that may be interested to pay attention to it and figure out if the value is now, later or never. Someone took the lead here to talk about it: you may not like their opinion or take on it, but others may derive value from it.
    And – as is commonplace in these instances – it looks like you and I will have to agree to disagree.

  27. This is always a bitch of a conversation because anytime you mention Chris or some other high profile people in this space it always turns into a bitch fest rather than useful conversation about the topic at hand.
    Leaders in every field have always been the outcasts and polarized people around them. Name one true leader that didn’t have his or her haters and lovers. It can’t be done.
    Being out in the front means you are the ones who get all the first arrows. It is why trail blazers don’t always make it.
    Is Chris a trail blazer or a leader? Only time will tell in my mind. But, he is out front in this space and isn’t afraid to stick a flag in the ground and say “this is what I think” and stick to it. Is he always right? No. But, at least he and others like him make a call and then see where it takes them.
    That is more than can be said about a lot of people in the world who stick to the vanilla and safe and never really give or say anything. Those are the people I hate.

  28. This is a great post. I had the pleasure of hearing from Chris Brogan at a conference back in October and just one of the things he honed in on is that frequency matters. Google+ is another channel that we have available to tell our brand’s story to our audience, whether it is the next big thing or not. I commend the “risk” that Chris has taken with writing this book and have a feeling that, in time, Google+ will be right there with Facebook and Twitter. I agree… our industry needs more Chris Brogans.

  29. Although risk is proven to be necessary for any innovation, I understand why people are so averse. What if I lose everything? What if I pass on as a fool? What if (…)?
    But what if you don’t? Perhaps you’ll spend an entire lifetime thinking what could have changed if you had tried. Or even worse, you’ll forget about it.
    People don’t deal well with paradoxes, and change (in any manner) is probably the biggest paradox in history. That’s why modern leadership is so misunderstood, in my opinion.

  30. Yes we certainly are cashing in Mitch. What little interaction I have had with Chris I didn’t like. He seemed quick to judge and spiteful. He used his blog to attack people and organizations in a way that made me uncomfortable and made me lose respect for him. People are often very different face to face so who knows? Having said that I would be very surprised if your friendly personality were different in person.
    P.S. it may just on the iPad, but the follow this conversation button does not seem to be working right now, therefore my late response.

  31. I’ll look into the bug… sorry about that, Bill.
    As for meeting me in person… I’m probably a lot more introverted. As for Chris, he’s always been a stand-up guy and solid friend to me, so you have to understand how hard it is for me to read your comment. All I can say is that I’m sorry your interactions haven’t been all that great.

Comments are closed.