(For the purposes of this post I’m defining leadership pretty broadly. It could be leadership in the context of business, community, technology, professional or academic areas. The sky’s the limit.)
It’s tempting to shoot for the biggest target; to attempt to establish leadership in the biggest market, in the most popular meme, or the latest craze. However there is a cost to leadership – it takes time, energy and skill (and sometimes money) to lead within a context. The more established that context is, the more of those resources it will require from a leader.
In the web world, for example, the leaders of the biggest segments get a lot of press. Amazon and Ebay are e-commerce leaders. Google is the search leader. Apple is definitely a leader of something, although we’re not sure what to call it (“coolness?”…ew…). Notice, however, that these leaders are also giants. Because they operate in such large, well-established spaces, they need to have immense resources in order to maintain their leadership position.
I’d like to propose that the benefit of being a leader follows a kind of “S”-curve. If you look at the graphic, the straight black ascending line represents the amount of investment (time, energy, money) necessary to attain leadership within a context. The red line is the benefit to the leader to hold that position. Notice that there are two places on the graph where the red line exceeds the black line. Those are the sweet spots.
The first spot, on the far right, is the one that gets all the press. This is the geometric value afforded to Amazon, Google and so forth, because they hold a leadership position in a well-known established space. The benefits here are obviously huge. Unfortunately it requires an enormous investment, which is often not an option for smaller companies, or individuals, making it seem like it’s an impossible task to get ahead through leadership.
However, there is a second, less noticed sweet spot just left of the middle of the graph. This represents a space in “early adopter” territory. A new idea that is beginning to get some traction, but hasn’t yet entered the mainstream is an area where a modest investment in time, energy and perhaps money can yield a significant benefit. One can “hitch their wagon” to the new thing, and become recognized as a leader for doing significant things at a modest scale. For individuals, small companies and organizations this is the acheivable sweet spot.
When the space matures and moves along to the middle of the graph the return on investment of leadership evens out: the idea has entered the mainstream, and the benefits of displaying leadership are no longer attractive in proportion to the amount of investment that has to be made. At this point it’s too easy to be accused of just “jumping on the bandwagon”, in other words – not a leader.
To sum up, the opportunity for benefit from leadership comes in identifying an idea, meme, technology or whatever that has significant momentum behind it, but isn’t quite ready for prime time for non-early adopters. Get involved, make things better somehow, contribute to any surrounding community. The benefit that comes back will exceed the cost of leadership.