Leadership in a noisy world

In journalism the adage is “if it bleeds it leads,” which means the most shocking and provocative stories run on the first page because those are the ones that grab attention and sell papers. It is the same reason the nightly news plugs urge us to tune in to learn about the “five things under our sink that are killing us.” It’s why Miley Cyrus was one of the most popular search terms on Google last year and why Ann Coulter is omnipresent on cable news.

It you want to quickly build a base of fanatics, go extreme. Become as polarizing as you possibly can be and the long tail will reward you with attention and accolades. Fans will tune in, buy your books, comment on your posts, and fill the seats. It’s important to have fanatics. This is your tribe. You can count on them to support and encourage you. You can look to them for inspiration and new material.

Divisiveness sells, but if your goal as a leader is to create change, not division, a more flexible approach may be required.

One of the most common cognitive distortions is black and white thinking. Here, it’s all or nothing – you are right or wrong. The cause is just or unjust. There are no shades of gray. A black or white mentality brings attention, but little progress.

To create change you need to replace the black or white mindset and its wide swaths of right and wrong with an approach that is less sexy and more subtle. Instead of playing to the base of your constituency, you may need to venture to new pastures and be willing to accept derision from your fans.

Here’s an example of how leadership works in the real world. Kathy Freston, who is a friend of mine, is the bestselling author of such books as the Veganist and Quantum Wellness and is known for her pursuit to reduce animal suffering. Unlike the fire and brimstone style so pervasive in our culture, Freston takes a decidedly undogmatic approach. Her latest health and wellness book, The Lean, is radical in that it rebukes extreme shifts and instead encourages small and gradual changes. Slow and methodical is anathema in our attention driven world, but when your goal is to effect change and not simply get attention, pragmatism trumps extremism.

Freston's goal is to encourage a plant-based diet. McDonald's is the largest purchaser of American beef in the United States. But instead of picketing McDonald's stores and deriding the people who eat there, she chose a different approach – she sought progress; not perfection. Instead of ostracizing McDonald's and its patrons, she chose to align with them in hopes of finding common ground.

Through a Change.org petition Freston is not demanding they eliminate chicken and beef from their menu, which would lead nowhere, but instead she is requesting that McDonald's add a plant-based veggie burger to its menu. That’s it. Why not stick it to them and demand more? Freston said, “It’s easy to cut ourselves off and isolate ourselves, but that’s the opposite of building an inclusive movement for a healthier nation. There are millions of Americans who go to McDonald's and will continue to go to McDonald's whether there is a plant-based option or not."

"This is how the world works, and we have to work within the system," she said. "To turn our backs on McDonald’s rather than try and work with them is to waste a big opportunity for a lean toward the better.” 

Will McDonald's respond? I don’t know. But I do know that Freston’s approach has the best chance for success. Noise gets attention. Nuance gets results. As a leader, know your goal and know when to use each.

  • Robert Pagliarini On Twitter»

    Robert Pagliarini is obsessed with inspiring others to create and empowering them to live life to the fullest by radically changing the way they invest their time and energy. He is the founder of Richer Life, a community of passionate people who want to learn and achieve more in life and at work. He is a Certified Financial Planner and the president of Pacifica Wealth Advisors, a boutique wealth management firm serving sudden wealth recipients and affluent individuals. He has appeared as a financial expert on 20/20, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew's Lifechangers and many others.

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