by Bob Lewis


Jan 06, 2011
IT Leadership

In an era with no job security, here's a path to less job insecurity.

 In an era with no job security, here’s a path to less job insecurity.

ManagementSpeak: This is your baby.

Translation: I want to wash my hands of this project while continuing to badger you about how badly I think you’re handling it.

This translation is Michon Scott’s baby.

If you don’t subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog, you should. And if you haven’t bought a copy of his latest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensible? (2010) get one without further delay (unless, that is, your book budget is limited, at which point I’m pretty sure you need one of my titles far more urgently).

Seth, it turns out, is a friend of the family. He and my Dad (the “Godfather of Gore”) are buddies. In Linchpin he even describes Dad as an artist, which … and if you’ve ever watched 2000 Maniacs you’ll understand what I’m talking about … suggests Seth has a very generous definition of art.


Which, in fact, he does: He defines art as anything that changes the recipient. (Sit through 2000 Maniacs and you will change. Mostly, your IQ will temporarily plummet. This isn’t an insult to my father. When I was a kid an interviewer asked him what sorts of people went to see his movies. His answer: “We don’t know. Nobody has ever developed a method for surveying IQs that low.” But I digress.)

Seth wants you to be an artist. More than that, he wants you to be a linchpin.

Linchpins are artists, who engage their emotions in what they do, have the courage to be original, connect the people around them, and have the confidence to give their art away instead of cautiously protecting it … confidence, that is, in their ability to create more art.

Linchpins are a third force in the organization. They lie outside management and labor … not between them, but outside them. They’re indispensable, not because they hoard information but because they’re unique.

Linchpinism isn’t a safe bet, but it’s probably safer than any other career bet you can place in the 2011 world of business. As pointed out here in the “Future of work trilogy” (“The Semiotic Diet,” “The future of work,” and “The lack of future employment,”), American businesses are increasingly uninterested in having employees. The combination of globalization, accelerating economic volatility, and steadily diminishing influence of organized labor means that now, more than any time since corporations first replaced agriculture as the primary source of a livelihood, you’re on your own.

Paradoxically, linchpins succeed specifically by not being on their own. What they do is more interesting than that — they don’t just participate in communities, they create them.

It’s a good career move, assuming you want to base your you-as-a-business pricing strategy on the value you bring, rather than trying to win in the labor marketplace by being a low-cost provider.

Linchpin’s message is appealing. It feels right, and most of us want to be right. Which means we should subject Linchpin to more scrutiny, not less (“How certain are you?” KJR, 10/10/2005).

So let’s dig in a bit and find the yeah-buts of linchpinism.

First: Linchpin‘s core premise is that anyone can become one. It takes no special genius, just the genius each of us has demonstrated by solving, at least once, a problem or puzzle nobody had solved before, coupled with the courage to rely on that ability from now on.

That means the only thing standing between most people and far greater success is their character — who they are. It’s a somewhat circular question. It makes my head hurt.

Another question: Whether the marketplace for linchpins can be large enough. In theory, linchpins create wealth, which should make the answer a resounding “absolutely.” In practice, most probably aren’t creating wealth so much as they’re redirecting it from one destination to another.

It’s one thing to invent the laser, which almost certainly created new wealth. It’s another to invent the iPad, which redirected spending from other product categories more than it created new wealth. Creating a memorable marketing campaign is a third … still a place a linchpin might thrive; not a place a linchpin will create new wealth.

For that matter, it was linchpins who created collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps … and we know how those turned out.

Is there room for so many linchpins? It’s a macroeconomic question that makes my head hurt even more.

There’s this: Some organizations encourage linchpins. Having them might not even make sense in others.

Seth recognizes this point and is explicit in dealing with it. There are plenty of companies that will view linchpins as annoying troublemakers. If you work for one and decide to be a linchpin, you probably won’t last there.

The question he asks, and it’s a good one, is why you’d want to work in a company like that in the first place.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.