Inspired by Dave Logan’s keynote on tribal leadership at AgileCultureCon, I did a breakout session and then an open-space followup on “Practical Prophecy 101”.
Recall that in Logan’s terms a “prophet” is a person who moves the behavior of his tribe towards greater cooperation and creativity by (his words) “preaching the inevitability of values-based change”.
Venessa Miemis took notes on my talk. Here’s a lightly edited and expanded version of those notes. In each item I have replayed a quote of mine that she recorded; where appropriate I have expanded a little on the thinking behind it.
1. Right names are powerful
“Shaping the vocabulary and linguistic map of a culture (what postmodernists call its “discourse”) is a particularly effective way to re-engineer it.”
“One of the most effective ways to shape the discourse of a culture is to find a concept that is central to it but unarticulated, and give it a name.”
Christine Peterson and I did this in 1998 when she proposed the term “open source” in 1998 and I popularized it. I believe the reason the transition in majority usage from “free software” happened so rapidly (over about the following 4 months) is that the semantic field of “open source” was a better fit to what most hackers wanted from their effort than the pre-existing “free software”.
I guess the more general advice for would-be prophets is to look for terms of art in your culture that don’t quite fit, that lots of people have spoken or unspoken reservations about. If you can invent better terms, resolving that emotional tension and discomfort will become energy for your cause.
2. Find the Deepest Yearning
“Cultural engineering works best when you are nudging a culture in a direction it wants to go anyway, but hasn’t yet found the right terms to express. If you find what the people in your culture hunger for and articulate it, you will gain power to shape that culture.”
The other side of this coin is well expressed by a quote from Lao-Tzu: “The wicked leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people revere. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘we did it ourselves!'” The true depth of that quote, I think, is that the people are not wrong to think that – the best leader unleashes the creative potential of his tribe, directing only to the minimum degree required to get the tribe’s mission done.
3. Use Cultural Capital
“Cultural engineering works best when it has a stratum of preexisting cultural capital to build on. Can you find or co-opt such a base?”
What I had in mind here as an example was the rather large stock of cultural capital that hackers own – the joke RFCs, the Jargon File, stories about famous hackers, other things of that sort.
The agile tribes don’t have nearly as rich a stratum to build on yet. Which is a problem for them, because it makes acculturating people a more difficult and chancy process. I was intending to suggest that they need to discover or create such capital.
“Technologies acquire meaning and transformative power through stories people tell themselves about their use cases.”
My favorite example of this is that the Maya had the wheel – but they only used it for children’s toys! They had no narratives or metaphors that connected the wheel with the idea of transportation or travel. This seems incomprehensible to Europeans because those narratives have been embedded in Old World cultures since our early Bronze Age, but the example of the Maya demonstrates that this is not an inevitable development.
4. Change behavior before theory
“Co-opting people is more effective than moralizing at them. Give people selfish reasons to behave the way you want them to; their beliefs will follow. Outside the tiny minority of people neurally wired to be intellectuals this works much better than trying to change beliefs first.”
5. Give people permission to be idealists.
(Venessa had this header attached to the next item.)
My gloss on Logan’s definition of a prophet as “preaching the inevitability of value-based change” is that a prophet gives people permission to be idealists – to believe and feel as though their work has a larger meaning than they have understood before, that it connects to history, that it’s part of a vast and wonderful story.
Humans have a strong need to belong – to form tribes, chase ideals, partially submerge their individual identies in something larger. Manipulating this need can lead to great evil (from mob violence up to totalitarian societies) so it’s something we need to be ethically very careful about. Still, a prophet who can harness this effect can achieve good outcomes.
When I’ve been troubled about whether I was using this effect ethically, the question I’ve always asked myself was “Am I increasing individuals’ options or decreasing them?” A prophet who uses this desire-to-belong to impose a narrowing vision of right conduct on others is doing wrong; a prophet who opens up possibilities, giving people more different ways to create meaning in their lives, is doing right.
6. Steer by your values
“Your ability to steer for specific results will be limited. When you don’t know where or how to aim, [speak and] act in accordance with your highest values. As a matter of self-protection, you must develop and maintain clarity about what those values are.”
Developing and maintaining this kind of clarity isn’t necessarily easy. A lot of people have trouble telling the difference between what they actually want and what social conditioning tells them they should want. If you want to be an effective prophet, you have to get shut of this sort of confusion.
And it’s not just self-protection. Because human beings are actually quite good at detecting deception and dissimulation, truth – speaking what one believes with honesty and passion – is the most powerful form of persuasion. The most effective prophets are those who wield overwhelming sincerity and pureness of purpose like a weapon. Pureness of purpose requires an exact consciousness of one’s goals and values.
Sincerity, alas, does not guarantee that the content of a prophet’s message is good or even sane. That problem, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.