In his well-known book, Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove, Silicon Valley pioneer and former CEO of Intel, recounts the story of the Pentium FDIV bug, an error in one of the earlier versions of the Intel Pentium processor. Intel was aware of the bug, but made the decision not to recall the processor because, in their assessment, a common user would encounter the error very rarely, if at all. That decision was eventually reversed after it was met with heavy criticism in the tech community and from consumers.
Grove was completely blindsided by the public’s reaction. He realized there was a profound gap between how he saw Intel and how the world saw it:
I still thought of us as a creative, dynamic start-up that had just grown a bit bigger than the other creative, dynamic start-ups. We could still turn on a dime. Our people still put the interests of the company ahead of their own interests and, when problems arose, employees from all different divisions would still rally around and put in incredible hours without anyone ordering them to do so. Yet now the world seemed to treat us like some typical mammoth corporation. And, in the public view, this corporation was giving people the runaround. That outside image didn’t jibe with my view of us.
Grove describes what I call “identity jet-lag,” a malady that will afflicts us all, at one time or another. How we think of ourselves and how others see us diverge, and we are caught by surprise. When we haven’t caught up with our new identity, it can cause a rude awakening. In Grove’s case, he continued to think of Intel as a feisty newcomer, jockeying for credibility and market share, then, when people were outraged, he realized (too late) that others saw Intel as the 300-pound gorilla that needed to be taken down.
Identity jet-lag strikes people and organizations alike, particularly in the realm of size, or more specifically, power. Feeling small lasts well past the moment that others see us as big. On a global scale, this explains how most conflict escalates: both parties see themselves as the victim of the other’s aggression and unjust provocation.
Another example of identity jet-lag, about a decade and a half after Intel’s Pentium processor debacle, was in 2000, when the tech upstart Google coined its corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.” The motto was a cheeky poke at the tech giants whom Google’s employees felt were exploiting consumers. The company’s search algorithm and stripped down, ad-free interface were designed for the consumer’s benefit—unlike Google’s competitors, whose search results were indistinguishable from advertisements. In the Google team’s perspective, their new search method was truly an insurrection. Yet, soon enough, “don’t be evil” became an invitation for critics to point out Google’s hypocrisy—in particular, the search engine’s decision to track and store users’ data across all of its services.
There is a fine line between upstart and veteran, between underdog and alpha dog. When you are the newcomer you can be rebellious and irreverent; you challenge existing structures and old paradigms. And because the world largely ignores you or doesn’t take you seriously, you can get away with it. In sports, the underdog is a dangerous opponent, a challenger with nothing to lose. In politics, it’s the opposition party or activist group challenging the status quo. In business, it’s the new competitor trying to carve out market space. There is an exquisite advantage to being a nobody. You can shoot for the moon. You have little or nothing to lose. No one expects much of you. And that’s just fine because when you don’t have to measure up to others’ expectations, you are freer to take risks and experiment.
But eventually you gain traction. Your sphere of influence grows. And before you realize it, others see you as the veteran—the alpha dog others are trying to knock down. And chances are, you have a case of “identity jetlag”—you still see yourself as new, small, and audacious, unaware that others see you as established, powerful, or even dominant.
This jetlag is precisely where power can be mismanaged or misused. Basing our decisions and behavior on a lower-rank identity, we run the risk of undermining our legitimacy and reputation. I coached a leader once who had been promoted into management very early in her career. Having authority at such an early age, she had developed a collaborative and relational leadership style that enabled her to manage older, more experienced colleagues without antagonizing them. Yet this leadership style became a handicap as she advanced. It was no longer congruent, as a senior vice president, to be so transparent or colleagial. She was privy to sensitive information about personnel, and about the organization that could not be shared publicly. She was busier and less available, and while others’ input was valuable, she often had to make decisions without the benefit of others’ opinions. Her earlier leadership stance began to look and feel inauthentic. She needed to embody a more professional, and, to a degree, detached leadership style.
As my client discovered, there are different “rules” of power depending on whether you’re an underdog or the alpha dog. To successfully transition from upstart to industry leader, from opposition to governing party, and from rookie to veteran, we need to keep these three facts in mind:
- It’s not enough to be against. What is it you stand for?
As the challenger you use power to critique, interrupt, and undermine. But when you’re in the role of leader, that same strategy won’t work. Criticizing and attacking alienates people. Your role is to bring people together, to get them to work together.
But more importantly, as the leader, you must state what you’re for—not just what you’re against. Why should people follow your direction? What’s your unique point of view? Though it’s much easier to define yourself in the negative than in the positive, you can’t simply define yourself by stating what you are not. Defining your parenting approach as “not being like my mother,” or saying “don’t be evil” is not aspirational. It doesn’t direct people to a future. It doesn’t define your values or lay out the principles you’re following.
This was a problem that met the global Occupy Movement that began with the occupation of Zuccotti park in Wall Street, in 2011. The movement was vocal in its opposition to globalization and the ravages of capitalism. But it was criticized for lacking a clear mandate of change. Critics suggest that it eventually lost traction for this very reason, that it lacked a clearly stated vision of an alternative future.
Even when you are the upstart, or in a low-rank position, take the time to spell out your vision. Don’t take the easy route of defining yourself in opposition to the establishment. Be aspirational, even if no one is yet listening.
- Be careful! Your identity will sneak up on you.
The transition from underdog to alpha dog happens imperceptibly, or so suddenly you aren’t prepared for it. Like aging: we still feel 35 on the inside, and suddenly someone calls us “ma’am” or “sir” and asks if we want the senior discount. Or, as is the case of Greece’s Syriza party, you’re a rag-tag opposition group one day and the government in power the next.
When it comes to power, we identify far longer with our state of powerlessness, and only come to realize we are in power when someone tries to steal our lunch. What follows is often rather ugly. Rather than realize that the other’s aggression is a sign of our power, we feel unfairly picked on. But when we complain about the injustice, we don’t get the sympathy we feel we deserve., Sometimes we get even harsher criticism heaped upon us. We get criticized for being a bully, though in our minds we’re justified, as Andy Grove found out when he tried to defend his company’s actions in the Pentium processor episode.
Be alert to the signs and signals that you are gaining stature. Don’t overlook small but significant changes in how others treat you. Remember, your identity interprets reality. If you have a low rank identity, then you will interpret the other’s aggression as a sign of disrespect. It will take a major—and deliberate—shift of perspective to entertain the possibility that aggression may be a sign of jealousy or competition.
- Be prepared to disappoint people.
People cheer for you as the underdog because you represent their unrealized hopes and dreams. You symbolize something bright, shiny, and new. But remember, hope exceeds what any individual, group, or company can accomplish in real life. It’s an inevitable and difficult truth that you will be more admired as the underdog than as the alpha dog.
Barack Obama the candidate was far more loved than Barack Obama the President. The Greek leftist-coalition party Syriza was seen as the hope for a new, anti-austerity future—only to become, within a few short years, the party responsible for enacting the very measures it opposed. Speaking about the American presidency, Thomas Jefferson reportedly once said, “No man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it. The honeymoon would be as short in that case as in any other, and its moments of ecstasy would be ransomed by years of torment and hatred.”
Once you govern, or once you are on top, your responsibilities change and reality sets in. While your optimism and confidence as the challenger is unlimited, your actions and choices as the leader are constrained by reality. Geopolitical strategist, George Friedman uses the analogy of a chess game to describe the limited power of world leaders: taking office is like sitting down to play a chess game in which half the moves have already been made. There’s not a whole lot you can do.
Watch out for promising too much, for holding unquestioned beliefs and falling prey to others’ expectations, that things will be vastly different once you are in power. Remember that the view from below will be different than the view from the top, and once we step into the high-rank role, we will realize, like every sleep-deprived new parent, that we’ve underestimated the task at hand.