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Are you Seeking Popularity or Influence?

One of our blog readers called me the other day to tell me that my blog ran through her head as she turned down a job under someone that appeared to be a coercive and corrosive leader. That call was more meaningful to me than 1,000 new followers would have been. Why? Because I changed her perspective and she took action that changed her life.

Do I want my impact to be popular or influential? Which would you choose? Would I rather produce a pet rock that was a huge seller or a 48-page essay like The Servant as a Leader, which few have read but those few have used to create tremendous influence in the world? Personally, I would choose the arcane essay that sparks profound change in a few people.

Why can’t I be popular and influential? Of course, you can. Which will you start with? Which is your driver?

I was warned by a mentor not to alter the message of my blog based on which posts are popular. We do this, don’t we? It’s one of the temptations on our hero’s journey. We incorporate feedback to spread the popularity of our work, our products, our message. And if your goal is popularity, responding to feedback works beautifully. Ronald Reagan tested and honed his message as he traveled around the country as a spokesperson for Gillette razors. Based on what he heard, he developed a message that he continually tested, and parlayed into politics, eventually ending up in the White House. He built a very popular message, and as a politician representing the people, reflecting back what people actually believe is probably a pretty sound strategy. But we’re not all politicians. What about the rest of us. What about those of us who go against the grain, and challenge the orthodoxy. Should we try to be popular too?

“Find a way to say it so that people can hear you.” “Dumb it down”. These are all the world’s way of watering down unique ideas. And sometimes this IS the unique thing. Michael Lewis, the author of “The Big Short” and “Money Ball” has made a living explaining complicated things to the masses. But what if it’s not? What if your thing is just by nature hard for people to accept? What if like the essay “The Servant as a Leader”, it stands as it is?

Stop seeking popularity. Sadly, as a society, we have come to value popularity over meaning. When someone tells you their idea for a new business or product what’s the first thing they say? “This is going to be HUGE!” Does it need to be huge, or can it be really life-changing for a handful of diabetic beekeepers who swim? Stop looking for popularity to validate your ideas.

It’s not about aptitude, it’s the way you’re viewed

So it’s very shrewd to be

Very very popular like me

— from the Broadway hit Wicked

Swaying to the popular opinion is a temptation. If you look at this in the context of the hero’s journey, you might notice that overcoming the temptation is what leads to revelation and then transformation. Giving in to the temptation will leave you rudderless, changing with the winds of popular opinion, and always requiring a poll to determine your path.

Find people who get it. Instead of starting with mass-market appeal, try starting with the few people who understand your idea or message. This is a group that can test it, evangelize and give you feedback.

Cultivate these people don’t collect them. Having someone get it, is not a one-and-done. There’s a give and take here, keep engaging with them.

Put energy into the idea and not the spread. Common wisdom today is that you can take the seed of an idea and spread it into success and have it grow while it spreads. The question is, do you want to spend your energy spreading or building? This is a very individual choice. The world needs both. Just think about which one you are and fight the temptation to be the other.

What do you think about Popularity vs Influence? Let us know!

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