The Rugged Individualist Is Dead

“The rigorous practice of rugged individualism usually leads to poverty, ostracism and disgrace. The rugged individualist is too often mistaken for the misfit, the maverick, the spoilsport, the sore thumb.” –Lewis Lapham, Harper’s Magazine

Natalie King, PhD in Neuroscience with the Liautaud Institute in Chicago, did some groundbreaking research that confirms what many of us have learned the hard way, Rugged Individualism is a really bad idea. Laiutaud’s research shows that “We are biologically designed to be connected to others.”


Their research also shows the deeper our connection to the groups we work with, the greater our contribution. Finally there is data, not just assumptions; our brains change when we live in community at work. This is no longer woo-woo crap, it’s pure biology; we need each other.

The first Industrialists created an aura of swash-buckling individualism that was so pervasive that nonsense like “going it alone” almost became a pre-requisite for success in the Industrial Age. The rugged individualist has its strongest roots in the Industrialists of the 19th and early 20th century, and it is a business disease that is ripe for eradication.

What Is Your Greatest Fear?

I am a recovering John Wayne Rugged Individualist. It took a number of decades and five business startups for me to realize I didn’t have to pretend I had a handle on every aspect of the business, or even a lot of it. As I slowly found confidants, I learned everybody is making it up as they go along. A few years back I remember seeing a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs asking, “What is your greatest fear?” The biggest response was that they feared someone would find out they didn’t know what they were doing. Join the club.

Who Are Your Friends?

The need to have it all figured out and never admit you made a mistake is insidious. It’s worst in the world of big government (on both sides), but is also a staple of management. In the 21st century Industrialist’s view of the world, people who admit mistakes and that they don’t have everything figured out are considered weak, and should be easy prey for destruction on the way to world domination.

But history says differently. If you look at the great leaders in history, they always surround themselves with people who can call BS on their lives and their leadership, while those who fail or, in hindsight, are seen in a negative light, surround themselves with yes-men, and then go it alone.

Committed Community—A Safe Place

We are building 3to5 Clubs for business owners all around the world. They meet in groups of twenty-four, twice a month to work through the fundamentals of how to build a business that makes money when they’re not around. People love the monthly planned training, but the most valuable thing 3to5 Clubs have to offer is a place for business owners to go and say three magic words; “I don’t know.”

Where do you go to say, “I don’t know?” If you say it to your clients, they look for another supplier. If you say it to your Stakeholders, they put their resumes out. Say it to your bank or your vendors and they’ll all shorten your terms. And if you say it to your spouse, now there are two of you not sleeping well.

In response to their own research, the Liautaud Institute is now offering Process-Designed Training (PDT) for work teams through CQintel. They find that CEOs and leaders who go through their program increase their emotional and social competence by 23% over the norm (control group).

The Greats All Had Outside Eyes

Harvey McKay, one of the best known business leaders in the world, made sure he was always in a group of other business owners who would meet regularly and provide what we call Outside Eyes for each other. Benjamin Franklin started his Leather Apron Society with a few apprentices like himself who were trying to figure out how to make it in the world. He credited it for a great deal of his success. A lot of very smart business leaders are deeply committed to great business advisory groups with long-standing records of success like Entrepreneurs Organization, Vistage, Young President’s Organization (YPO), and others. Both EO and YPO have adopted the Liautaud Institute’s team training methodologies.

The Wisdom of Crowds
I’ve started nine businesses and while I may have had a good grasp on the “craft” of each one of them (call center, fulfillment, printing, direct mail, database development, importing, etc.), the actual implementation was always a crap-shoot. As soon as my idea hit the real world, all bets were off and we were in a regular evolutionary cycle we call, “Implement now. Perfect as you go.” You can manage the ongoing chaos of a growing business all by yourself, or you can admit “I don’t know”, get with others who also don’t know, and figure it out together.

We believe in The Wisdom of Crowds which says that there is almost always a better answer in a diverse groups of individuals than any one expert could come up with on their own. It makes no sense to go it alone when you can get together with a bunch of others who also “don’t know”, and who can all find out together. I hear regularly from 3to5 Club members, Vistage, YPO and EO members around the world who say being in those groups has transformed both their lives and their businesses.

The Rugged Individualist, Isn’t

The rugged individualist is a blustering, silly, insecure, transparent position to try to hold in the Participation Age. As the Industrial Age fades behind us, great leaders-in-the-making will gladly say “I don’t know”, and then will doggedly pursue figuring it out, in the context of Committed Community with others who also don’t know.

Time To Move On Together

The legendary John Wayne is dead. Let’s bury the rugged individualist in his honor. The “heroic activist” who goes it alone has no place in business. You’ll be a lot more successful if you get into community.

“If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.” Chinese Proverb

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