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The Gift of Obscurity

Leadership is very attractive. Today, it seems like everyone is in a rush to become a manager, director, Vice President or CXO of something. For some, it’s the status that comes with the position – we believe it will make us feel better about ourselves. For others, it’s to impress people (that we don’t even like) with our new title. But for a few people, it’s just a natural next step in their career to move into leadership. But why are so many of us obsessed with the titles? There's nothing wrong with having goals and being driven but what is the motive?

"It's better to be prepared and not have an opportunity than it is to have an opportunity and not be prepared" - Les Brown

I find very few people take time to consider the responsibility and expectations that come with a position; instead we focus on the reward and the recognition of the role. We don’t realize that obscurity – the state of being unknown – is a gift! This is a place where we can develop and grow in the areas that are weakest. It’s a place where intense public criticism doesn’t yet exist. This is the stage where mistakes are forgiven before they are published. How many executives have we seen in the past decade that have lost their roles and sometimes their companies after one mistake? If you are already operating as a leader in whatever you have been given to do, you will eventually be asked to step into the role.

The higher you go in leadership, the greater the expectation and the greater the scrutiny. In an entry level role, a mistake might cost a couple hundred dollars; in an executive role, it’s millions or sometimes billions. What is the point of forcing your way into leadership only to be relieved of your duties in a few months or years? It's much more beneficial to develop in the background! There are 3 reason why I feel like obscurity is such a gift:

1. You can experiment in a safe environment

The saying goes “To whom much is given, much is expected” which means as soon as you are given something – a new role, new title, new team - something is expected in return. So the best part about being unknown is that you get to experiment and make lots and lots of mistakes. You get to find out what works and what doesn’t without the consequence of millions of dollars lost. It means you get to try new scripts, new tactics, new strategies – things that you would ordinarily be too scared to try if the stakes were raised. In obscurity, mistakes are forgiven, and feedback is constructive. This is the best place to learn, unlearn and relearn in preparation for the next stage of your career.

2. You get to develop substance before significance

I feel like most people care more about being significant that they do about having real substance. It’s easy to find catchy phrases that make you sound like you know what you’re doing – I’m speaking from experience. Back when I was involved in network marketing I would walk around in a suit saying things like “If nothing changes, nothing changes; but if you change everything changes.” I had written these phrases down from people who had built great businesses and written life-changing books but I did not have depth so my words were just words. In obscurity, you get to develop your depth and your substance. This is where things go from idea to reality, from words to action, from concept to execution. This is where you develop your gift of leadership learning to lead a team of 1 – yourself. Then a team of 3, then 5 and so on. At every stage, you get better because of you’re building on something substantial and not superficial. Significance is not a test of substance but substance will lead to significance in the long run.

3. You build resilience for the long run

I heard a saying once that put things into perspective: it takes 15 years to be an overnight success. We often get to see the rise to fame or the success but we rarely get to see the years of failure and disappointment. It takes a lot of persistence and resilience to build something for years especially in tough times. Another reason why obscurity is a gift – you get to develop the strength it takes to last the long haul. What’s the point of building a career or a business that could be erased overnight? Long before the expectations of people, the scrutiny or investors and the extreme risk of failure, you can spend time growing so that your legacy lasts forever.

 

"It took 10 years' time for Shopify to become an overnight success" - Tobias Lutke