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A Lone Visionary Isn't Enough: On the Value of Followers, Prototypers, and Stewards

You need plenty of people who share the startup spirit but don't aspire to be a CEO or executive director.


Every entrepreneurial venture requires a leader. But a lone visionary is rarely sufficient to make a difference in the world. He or she may not even be the most critical element to a project's success. As anyone in Silicon Valley will tell you, most entrepreneurial ventures don't last. They might also point out that in a true innovation economy, you need plenty of people who share the startup spirit but don't aspire to be a CEO or executive director.

Insight Labs recently held a session with Echoing Green in which we sought "the next social entrepreneurship"—a big idea that will activate thousands of additional people to dedicate their lives to doing good.


Ahead of the session, we wanted to learn more about some of the other types of people who are necessary for social entrepreneurs’ projects to succeed. We put the question to entrepreneurs affiliated with Echoing Green, Ashoka, TED, and Insight Labs.

Our inspiration is a well-known TED talk in which Derek Sivers argues that the "first follower"—not the leader—is actually the one responsible for launching a movement. The types we uncovered might be thought of as variations on his theme.

Some interviewees pointed to individuals who had helped build their organizations. Others spoke about skill sets and attributes they wished they could find more of in the world. For example, Stephen Friend, an Ashoka Fellow and the founder of Sage Bionetworks wishes more organizations could find a "Steward of the Elders." He says young leaders need someone who already has access to a web of experts “so that when someone hears you’re working on something, you don't have to 'sell' it."

He also says:

one of the services that an organization like Ashoka or TED can provide is opportunities for those elders to donate their time and make those connections with organizations they like. … You have to be able to have people who you trust and who can trust you. You either get that trust from working with them for a long time or through this strange phenomenon where someone else you trust says, 'Hey, I really like this person.' That can give you 50 percent of the trust you need. But that’s something that I imagine a “body of elders” could do or should do."

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Stephanie Pace Marshall, an Insight Labs Alum and founder of the Illinois Math and Science Academy says her organization has been helped by "The Prototyper"—"people who can see the way things were before and then connect the dots in a different way." Pace Marshall acknowledges that "the entrepreneur does this too, but you need people who are there with you and can challenge you. … Social entrepreneurs need people who can hold the vision—maybe not with the same intensity or passion—but they do hold it. And then they can say, "Okay, for this vision to become a reality, here are some things that will need to happen."

Eric Berlow, a TED Fellow and founder of Vibrant Data Labs looks for "The Funseeker" in people. Berlow said he believes,

"the most important thing for students and adults alike is realizing what your skills actually are. When you are really good at something, it seems easy to you. It seems obvious. It seems like everyone should be able to do it. I've worked with a lot of students, and when they are young, they tend to know what they’re passionate about. But that tends to get beaten out of them. They are taught that you can’t possibly make money from what you’re passionate about. But a lot of times your skills and passions are related. That's what puts you in the zone. So I tend to try to find what students are really passionate about, because that tends to tell you what they’re really good at. I say to them, 'Imagine if you could make a little money on the side doing what you would already do for fun.'"

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You can read all of the interviews here.

We're also interested in your thoughts. Tell us about a personality type or set of skills other than those of the entrepreneur that you consider important to the success of an organization. It can either be a type of person who you already have that seems under-appreciated by the rest of the world, or it can be a type of person who you would really like organizations to have to increase their impact.

Gears in the human head image via Shutterstock

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