Change Agent - Issue 35

"Most torch-bearers don't realize how unique they are, how powerful their role is, or how hard their task is."

I've never been a big fan of the Olympics. To me, most of the pageantry is hackneyed and off-putting — and I've never forgiven them for not including Ultimate Frisbee as a sport. Most of all, what's the deal with curling?

But one part of the Olympics that fascinates me is the torch relay that kicks off the event. Apparently a riff on some legend from ancient Rome (or ancient Greece, I can never remember), the torch relay involves carrying a single flame from one spot to another — preferably a spot that's pretty far away.

Unlike every other moment of the Olympics, this one focuses all of our attention on a single person, a single detail. No multiple-event, three-ring circus here. It's one runner, one flame. If the torchbearer falls, it's a big deal. If she doesn't make it to the next runner, she lets down everyone ahead of her in line, as well as all of the runners who carried the torch before her.

When people in the workplace confront shift, rift, zooming, and all of the other challenges that make up business life, there is one thread that runs through all of the choices that they make: Either they're torchbearers, or they're not.

Over the past few months, I've spent some time working with friends at Flatiron Partners, one of the biggest Internet venture firms on the East Coast. Entrepreneurs think that the selection process used by VCs is a big mystery. They're dying to know how VC firms decide who gets the big bucks and who gets nothing. The answer is surprisingly simple.

When venture-capital firms look for entrepreneurs on whom to risk their money, they aren't searching for a great idea, or even great credentials. No, what they're searching for is this: the certainty that the person who brings them a business idea is going to carry the torch for that idea as long as it takes, that the idea will get passed on, and that the business will make it across the finish line.

The really great startup companies in Silicon Valley, the ones that overcome every obstacle and manage to persist, even when it looks as if they're going to fail — those companies are run by torchbearers. If there is one thing that separates Silicon Valley from almost any other place I've been, it's not the technology, the traffic jams, or the lack of a decent Italian restaurant — it's the culture. The place is teeming with torchbearers, with folks who are willing to take responsibility for carrying a flame.

As more and more of us emigrate to Free Agent Nation, a place where more and more people are their own chief executives, the trend toward rewarding torchbearers will only increase. The biggest chasm in our society has become the gap between people who embrace the torchbearer's responsibility to customers, investors, and companies, and those who are just there for the job.

A lot of folks whom I talk to speak wistfully about what they would do if they were "in charge." I've got news for them: If they're willing to be in charge, people will put them in charge! In my view, the huge rewards that we're seeing for people who are brave enough, crazy enough, and talented enough to carry the torch for a new business are entirely justified. Why? Because there aren't nearly enough torchbearers around.

Last year, more money was spent to fund new business ventures than in any other year in the history of the world. Yet a huge amount of money sat uninvested, because there was no place to invest it. Are we really out of good ideas? No way. I've got a file cabinet filled with them, and you probably know of a few as well. Is there a shortage of engineers who are capable of implementing those ideas? Nope. There are plenty of engineers too.

So, if it's not a lack of money, ideas, or engineers that is slowing down our shift to the new economy, what is it? Exactly the same thing that's holding up your company's transition to a new way of doing business — the absence of someone who is willing to stand up, look everyone in the eye, and say, "I'll make it happen."

Here's how I know that I'm talking to a torchbearer:

First, torchbearers don't make excuses. Our current economic good times won't last forever. You won't always be able to found a company and go public in less time than it takes to have a baby. At some point, the venture-capital funds will dry up. And, when those tough times come, they will present a perfect opportunity for the pretenders to fold their tents. Filled with vitriol and busy looking for a lawyer so that they can sue someone, these entrepreneurial also-rans will find a way to blame their troubles on other people. Real torchbearers run uphill with the same grace and style that they bring to gliding downhill.

Second, torchbearers often attract a crowd. People are fascinated by folks who are willing to carry responsibility. All too often, people add their own burdens to those that their leader must already carry — but, in any case, they're usually delighted to follow along. And sometimes these folks are loyal and hard-working enough to follow a torchbearer uphill as well as downhill.

Third, most torchbearers don't realize how unique they are, how powerful their role is, or how hard their task is. Even though they could make outrageous demands and insist on all kinds of special treatment, most of them are happy just to perform their role and to handle their task.

Fourth, torchbearers often care more about forward motion than they do about which route to take. You won't find them tied up in endless strategy meetings, looking for the perfect solutions. Instead, you'll find them out on the road, picking their way through boulders and weeds — moving, moving, moving, because they realize that moving is often the best way to get where they're going.

Fifth, and most important, real torchbearers don't stop until they finish. In the life of any torchbearer, there's a balance between devotion to duty and the pursuit of joy. A torchbearer never forgets about or shortchanges a duty, even when that means postponing joy.

In established companies, the refrain that I hear most frequently is "Well, we'd be doing great if [insert person or department, along with pejorative adjective] would just get [his/her/its] act together." Many previously great companies, both big and small, are having a lot of trouble dealing with all of the changes and rifts that the new economy is bringing to their doorsteps. Why? Because in many companies, the torchbearers have left the building. Either the folks in charge have forgotten what it takes to practice true leadership (after all, they've made it, the company has hit its marks, and now it's "Miller time"), or they've left and been replaced by a different kind of management.

The point here isn't that people in top management are unwilling to embrace change. The point is that the people who are busy pointing fingers and whining about "those guys" are demonstrating that they're not torchbearers.

If you're waiting for someone else to lead you to a better way of doing business, then reckon with this Olympic-size news flash: Settle in. It's going to be a long wait.

All of a sudden, in every company in every country, torchbearers are in high demand. Everybody is trying to figure out where to go. And, much more important, they're trying as hard as they can to find someone who will take them there: someone who will walk through walls and over hot coals, someone who won't give up until the job is done.

Intrinsic to being a torchbearer is recognizing that you bear the torch for someone else. In our increasingly "me"-centered society, it's easy to worry about increasing the value of the Brand Called You, while letting someone else carry your company's or your investor's torch. Torchbearers do both.

In a small town in Georgia, a woman named Karen Watson faced such a challenge head-on. Several years ago, her friends and neighbors were complaining about the way that blacks in that town were treated. There was an undercurrent of racism, and, in particular, blacks were being tracked to lower-level classes in school.

For a while, Watson and her neighbors appealed to civil-rights organizations, waiting for some big shot to come to town and save them. Then it dawned on Watson that maybe, just maybe, nobody was ever going to come — and that the person who could make a difference was her.

So she stood up and took charge. She taught herself what she needed to know. She made a commitment. And the organization that she built, the Positive Action Committee, has made a huge difference in her community, generating change in several areas. Watson took responsibility — for her town and for her neighbors' town. She is a torchbearer.

So could you be a torchbearer? Are torchbearers born or made? Here's my guess: Many of us have the torchbearer gene, but for some of us, it lies dormant until something awakens it. Some parents raise their children to be torchbearers from birth. Others do whatever they can to persuade their kids to hide it. We're certainly not organizing our schools or our society to reward children who demonstrate torchbearer qualities.

But I think that you can awaken the torchbearer within. I think that most people, given the right reason, can find the intestinal fortitude to carry a flame across the finish line.

Now, I'm not talking about working hard, or being dedicated, or putting your mission first. Being a torchbearer has nothing to do with how late you work at night, or whether you give your cell-phone number to your boss. No, I'm talking about the people with that rare skill, the ability to dig deep when the need arises — to get past the short-term pain and to pull off an act that few would have believed possible.

In the new economy, people are doing things that have never been done before. Faced with the unprecedented, in an environment that's unstable, many people say, "It can't be done." The torchbearer is the one who does it. Roger Bannister did more than set a record when he ran a mile in less than four minutes. He showed the world that anyone else could do that as well. He broke a time barrier, and he changed the way that everybody trained for a race.

Are you a torchbearer? Probably. The challenge is to find the right project, the right challenge, the right moment — and then to do it. Once you've shown that you can do that, the world will beat a path to your door.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of "Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers" (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and the founder of Yoyodyne Entertainment.

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