The World is in a Crucible, 4 Skills for Rising from the Ashes

When the world is in a crucible, new forms are birthed. The previous order is reshuffled. Some at the top disappear. Visionaries emerge from the periphery. America has long looked to the business world for its visionaries, but some come from other sources.

When the world is in a crucible, new forms are birthed. The previous order is reshuffled. Some at the top disappear. Visionaries emerge from the periphery. America has long looked to the business world for its visionaries, but some come from other sources.


Young Chris Hughes had perhaps more influence on Obama’s successful campaign for president than any other single person. He left a potentially lucrative position as a co-founder of Facebook to join Team Obama. There he envisioned and built the social web infrastructure that made history with its success as a campaign tool. Newt Gingrich wrote in the Washington Post, “I will be spending a lot of time over the next year studying the Obama campaign… It sets the standard for the future.”

Thanks to Hughes 35,000 volunteer assembled across the country, 400,000 blogs were created where people expressed their support generating massive third party endorsements, over 200,000 face-to-face events were organized, and $30 million was raised on the pages of 70,000 people (average $428 per page). For the full story see Ellen McGirt’s excellent article in Fast Company. Hughes is a practical visionary, showing how to work the social web to generate real results. It is not a typical business model, but it works. That is the sign of something new.

Social web.  Until last year it was not clear what value there was to be had.

Hughes is only twenty-five. We have become accustomed to superstar youngsters changing the world ala Google. But, now look to our sixty-five year old Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, for insight into the future. Here is the man who presides over some of the most difficult conflicts in our nation’s history. His non-traditional approach has satisfied both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  When you hear Gates talk, he rattles your understanding of his office.

In 2007 he addressed the graduating class of Kansas State University and said, “…based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former Director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power. One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more – these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success.”

Soft power. Not a term we associate with America’s might.  


It’s hard to see the Phoenix for all the ashes today, but new skills are emerging for tomorrow’s visionaries to wield their power. Here are four:

1. Accurately Assess a Holistic View of the World
Hughes could read the needs of the nation. People wanted to change the channel, put someone fresh and new in the highest office. He crafted a platform that enabled them to take effective coherent action, uniting rich and poor, progressive and conservative, young and old.Gates read the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and accurately described the missing infrastructure.

Each had the capacity to take in a system, see the pieces, their relationships, and the whole. When these three are brought together and aligned, an engine of power forms and generates massive results.

2. Develop a Deep and Comprehensive View of Those They Serve
Hughes was on the system every day corresponding with users as he built the system. He knew their needs, frustrations, and yearnings. He could feel their pain and built his system to respond. Gates started as an analyst for the CIA. He understood data, patterns, and intelligence. He was able to pull them together and empathize with the plight of those in conflict. He understands what pushes people to choose sides and focuses on how to create environments where they make good choices instead of bad ones.

3. Integrate Direction, Strategy, and Objectives
Gates has developed a detailed understanding of his goals that comes from years of study and analysis. He sees beyond the conflict, which is only a means to an end.  He plays to the end state. Opponents are not simply overtaken, but successfully developed as allies. This means going beyond meeting basic needs and leads into strategic communication, education, and economic development. All this is built on tremendous respect and adherence to human dignity.

Hughes could see the overarching goal of his system,, to make it possible for people to do what they wanted to do.  He also understood how to assemble the components that made each piece effective in the larger framework.  He successfully integrated his endgame with each step along the way.


4. Convene the Right People in the Right Context
In this day and age no one person is capable of wrestling through the complexity of issues. Visionaries need to bring together leading thinkers and set the agenda for constructive interaction. They must be master Social Architects, creating interactive sessions that generate breakthroughs.  Both Hughes and Gates relied on colleagues with intellectual firepower to wrestle through the complex issues they faced, and generate solutions.

This is the time when leaders earn their keep. When there is a storm, it is their job to rise to the occasion and navigate safely through, bringing their people and the world to something great. This is a time when new worlds emerge, and visionary leaders are the midwives.

The previous order will be reshuffled. Think of Lincoln who came to office with the challenge of holding the union together. By the time his work was done he was able to accomplish something that was considered to be impossible, the emancipation of the slaves.  He entered the tumultuous ordeal and used its great forces to fashion a world that was far and away beyond what anyone could imagine.

Seth Kahan,  


About the author

I help leaders with change, innovation, and growth. My latest book is "Getting Innovation Right." My first book, "Getting Change Right," was a business bestseller. home office: (301) 229-2221, USA - email: