05/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In the New Millennium, Success Is Based Entirely on Volunteers

The days of "buying" people's time, effort and attention are over.

We are all volunteers. We actively choose who we will work for, and how hard we will work for them. We choose who our clients and partners will be. We choose whom to let into our inner circle of friends, those whom we will offer unconstrained support. And we choose our "weak ties," those outside of our day-to-day whom we will offer a new idea or perspective, and occasionally our direct assistance.


To be successful, you need to earn every relationship. Leadership in the 21st century is based almost entirely on one's ability to recruit and inspire others toward the future you are trying to create.

This thought became very clear to me this week, as I sat down to write the Acknowledgements section for my next book, The Leap: How Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good to Great (Portfolio- 9/09). Within an hour, I had cited nearly 100 people who had made a material contribution to my life's successes in just the last few years. This exercise led me to three important observations.

Observation 1: It takes an army. While we are closely interacting with perhaps a dozen people at any given moment, our longer-term success results from the collective contributions of many, many more. Achievement may have one author, but it has 100 writers.

Observation 2: Success is a table with dozens of legs. The second thing I noticed was just how many different points of contribution there were. There were those who helped me generate ideas, and those who simply offered (critical) moral support. There were early customers who took a risk, and early partners who contributed time, experience and tangible assets. There were early employees who helped us shape our model, and employees who arrived later who dramatically raised the bar. No matter how singular your objective, achieving it always requires developing and managing a broad contribution system. You can't win by leading one group and ignoring others. You need to bring them all into the tent.

Observation 3: They were all volunteers! This was my most fascinating discovery. Looking through the entire list, more than 80% of them were not "on the payroll." These were not people that had offered their support based only on expectations of compensation. They were customers who needed what I was offering, partners who wanted me to be successful, professionals who believed in what I was trying to create and wanted to help. As for the 20% who were directly compensated? Turns out they were volunteers as well. Bono and Robert Redford were both given a significant stipend for contributing to my business, but they each turn down 100 such invitations for every 1 they agree to. Web development, PR, marketing, legal and other vendors were the best in the business, and I had to "sell" everyone of them on why they should work with me. My employees all had other options, and these days, they don't mind exercising their right to walk out the door. In the end, it was the goal that brought them in, and it was our passionate pursuit of it that made them stay.

Take a moment to write down your Acknowledgement list. Have you taken time to let them know you are grateful for their contributions? Would you show up on their acknowledgements list? How many volunteers do you have working for you?

Command and control leadership is dead. To be successful, you need to completely let go of this notion, even if you have a team of employees under you. You can choose where to lead them, but know that they will most certainly exercise the choice to follow.

What are your thoughts on leadership in today's work environment? Let us know!

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