To Lead, You Must Stand Up

Followup to: Lonely Dissent

True story: In July, I attended a certain Silicon Valley event. I was not an organizer, or a speaker, or in any other wise involved on an official level; just an attendee. It was an evening event, and after the main presentations were done, much of the audience hung around talking… and talking… and talking… Finally the event organizer began dimming the lights and turning them back up again. And the crowd still stayed; no one left. So the organizer dimmed the lights and turned them up some more. And lo, the people continued talking.

I walked over to the event organizer, standing by the light switches, and said, “Are you hinting for people to leave?” And he said, “Yes. In fact [the host company] says we’ve got to get out of here now—the building needs to close down.”

I nodded.

I walked over to the exit.


I turned.

I marched out the door.

And everyone followed.

I expect there were at least two or three CEOs in that Silicon Valley crowd. It didn’t lack for potential leaders. Why was it left to me to lead the CEOs to freedom?

Well, what was in it for them to perform that service to the group? It wasn’t their problem. I’m in the habit of doing work I see being left undone; but this doesn’t appear to be a common habit.

So why didn’t some aspiring would-be future-CEO take the opportunity to distinguish themselves by acting the part of the leader? I bet at least five people in that Silicon Valley crowd had recently read a business book on leadership...

But it’s terribly embarrassing to stand up in front of a crowd. What if the crowd hadn’t followed me? What if I’d turned and marched out the door, and been left looking like a complete fool? Oh nos! Oh horrors!

While I have sometimes pretended to wisdom, I have never pretended to solemnity. I wasn’t worried about looking silly, because heck, I am silly. It runs in the Yudkowsky family. There is a difference between being serious and being solemn.

As for daring to stand out in the crowd, to have everyone staring at me—that was a feature of grade school. The first time I gave a presentation—the first time I ever climbed onto a stage in front of a couple of hundred people to talk about the Singularity—I briefly thought to myself: “I bet most people would be experiencing ‘stage fright’ about now. But that wouldn’t be helpful, so I’m not going to go there.”

I expect that a majority of my readers like to think of themselves as having strong leadership qualities. Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. But you’ll never get a chance to express those leadership qualities if you’re too embarrassed to call attention to yourself, to stand up in front of the crowd and have all eyes turn to you. To lead the pack, you must be willing to leave the pack.