11/19/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

How F*ckyoumotherf*cker Taught Me Influence Trumps Authority

When I was a teenager in Alabama, I regularly heard f*ckyoumotherf*cker directed at me.

I spent a significant part of my weeks spending time with early teen boys from disadvantaged inner city communities. I mentored them, I tutored them, I cajoled them into doing their homework, I signed them up to YMCA basketball leagues and ferried them to and from their games. When I found they held a strong superstition towards graveyards, I even arranged an impromptu late night drive-through of the nearest one. They feared and respected me more after this. I would have been smart to make it a weekly occurrence. I gave a lot to these young rowdy boys.

And in return, they gave me something invaluable: they taught me authority is helpful but far more valuable is influence. When I look back on those days, I tend to do so with the romantic notion that the boys listened each time I spoke, that they were the perfect picture of coherent energy. But then I remember more clearly and I admit that they were normal boys. Each direction (pleading?) given was an exercise in a clash of willpowers. I'd tell them to go left and they'd go right. I asked them not to hit their friend and they'd kick them in the balls. I said Do your homework and they told me F*ckyoumotherf*cker. My authority worked to the extent that my body size was twice theirs.

And so it went. Perplexing, challenging, never dull. Gradually over time, f*ckyoumotherf*cker began to give way to more civilized dialogue such as No and Why not.

I learned that I could command them and exhaust us both. Or I could choose to invest in them and we could grow together. Influence began to slowly trump authority, even if the birth of it was only induced out of pure necessity. We began to build rapport with each other. Not as friends, but we respected each other, we believed in each other. And I became far more effective at guiding them on their journey. Once they realized that I would do anything for their good, and once I learned to be smart about how I related to them, we moved forward.

I am fortunate to have had them as my teachers at such a young age. I use it today in my work with INCLUDED (recently renamed from Compassion for Migrant Children), a nonprofit organization I founded and lead which works to see the maturing of inclusive cities for migrant slums.

One of the most basic skills an entrepreneur needs to master right out of the gate is the ability to persuade others. But when you are paying people, the dynamic does shift a bit. Structures of authority help with efficiency, but even that doesn't always work.

We had already been working at our mission a couple of years when our least paid, least educated colleague found a different way to remind me that f*ckyoumotherf*cker still held true. There were rumors that the first community center we established in a migrant slum was slated for demolition. Governments and nonprofits around the world aren't motivated to invest into migrant slums because of the twin issues of informality and instability that plague the sustainable development of these slums. With our first goal of opening 100 community centers in migrant slums of Asia, Africa, and South America, we knew the sector needed to introduce a new approach. Maybe not the end-game solution, but something that could get the conversation started. 1 in 3 people in the world will soon live in a migrant slum. It's in everyone's interest to get this right, as I outlined in a recent article.

In the midst of the considerable psychological stress that the pending demolition was causing our team, I glanced over at a donated box of Legos sitting in our office and I realized that to think outside of the box, we first needed to think inside the box.

So I began to reach out to top architects across the continents to see how we could reimagine shipping containers as creative and inspirational spaces of hope. I took this idea to my colleague thinking he would be excited about a solution that could be moved with the community if it needed to be moved, yet at the same time retain a sense of the quality and dignity that we feel our migrant friends deserve. His immediate reaction was kind: That's ridiculous, it's never going to work. He carried these feelings to our other colleagues: This is what you get for having a crazy foreigner as your boss. I was asking him to step into uncomfortable territory and it was f*ckyoumotherf*cker all over again. They weren't going to roll over just because I told them to. So I did what any sane individual in my place would have done: I fired him. Okay, not really. That was at a later time and for a different (and valid) reason.

So it sunk in. If I was going to win this battle (and I felt it was one worth winning due to the long-term implications for the sector), I needed to win our team on this one.

Over three months I slowly and quietly began building my case. I reached out to architects to try and conquer our team's reluctance with the weight of expert opinion. I became the assistant and prepared PowerPoint slides to convince them into submission. Though refurbishing shipping containers is now in vogue, this was several years ago and at that time, there were very few models globally that were actually built. But I found enough pictures to build a case. Finally this insurmountable tsunami of evidence (and my considerable personal charm!) brought them over to my side, and we launched what was to become our first Community Cube, an idea that is alive and thriving to this day.

In the last few years, we've grown to become a team of forty staff spread across six different countries. Some like to be told what to do, others not so much. I'm sure there are a lot of f*ckyoumotherf*cker thoughts flying around. When they feel like I lean towards leading predominately through authority, staff morale dips and our team motivation becomes murky. When they see me leading at my best, by influence, we are more energized and get a lot more done. I lose my way sometimes. And when I do, the words from those young inner city boys those many years ago resound in my ears ... f*ckyoumotherf*cker. It's been the purest of all lessons.