14: The Law of Buy-In

The law of buy-in maintains that people will follow a person who has been successful in the past, even without much of a plan, more readily than they will accept a compelling plan presented by a person who lacks personal charisma or distinction.

Said another way, people don't buy into worthy causes; they buy into worthy leaders who champion worthwhile causes. They weight whether the person is credible before considering whether the plan has merit.

He speaks of the chaos of the venture capital market in Silicon Valley, how many people are "buzzing around" trying to find backing to get funding for their ideas. Those who have good ideas but no past track record of success find it difficult to get a hearing at all. Those who have been successful often get capital without having to present an idea.

A three-sentence case study from the world of technology: "The first time Judy Estrin started up a company, it took her six months to find the money. The second time it took her about six minutes."

Estrin is quoted, "We had venture capitalists calling us and begging us to take their money." People had bought into her, as a person, and were ready to buy into whatever plan she had without knowing any details.

The tendency to buy into people is the basis for celebrity product endorsements: it's not that anyone feels that the celebrities are particularly intelligent people with expertise in the products they are selling - most actors and athletes are in reality quite dull and uneducated sorts - but their "star power" is compelling.

It's Not Either-Or

While star power gets attention, people will eventually consider the merit of a plan - glamour is by nature superficial and not sustaining. So even if you have a leader with star power, people won't be motivated for long if the vision isn't credible.

(EN: Which seems to imply that if the leader presents short-term plans that don't require a sustained course of action, people can easily be hoodwinked. I sense this is likely true, though when they eventually experience remorse, their regard for the leader will be diminished.)

As such, if people don't like the leader, they won't give attention to the plan. If they then like a plan, but lose faith in the leader, they will seek a different leader. This even happens when the leader is lost: consider any instance in which a popular leader is martyred, and the people carry on his vision with different leadership.

If people like a leader, but dislike his plan, then they seek to convince their leader to change his vision. It's noted that people will continue to follow the leader, even if he's headed in the wrong direction, but only for a short time. This is also true of people who disagree with some aspects of a leader's vision: consider that no-one completely agrees with the various stances a politician takes on individual issues, but so long as the right outweighs the wrong, they will stand behind him as their leader.

Buying Time for People to Buy in

The author speaks of his own experience in taking leadership roles in different churches in the course of his career as a pastor. Each time he took a leadership role, it took years for him to establish credibility with the congregation so that they would accept his leadership.

This goes back to the example he gave in earlier chapters, of the way in which he would give his support to people who had a strong presence on the board: until he had earned his spurs, he had to leverage the credibility of others.

Another tactic that can be used to buy time is the use of committees: it's much easier to apply influence to a smaller group of people, and the congregation will give more faith to an anonymous group of people, some of whom they know, than they will to a single person they do not know very well.

If your early work, accomplished through other people, has a positive result, people will give you credit as the leader, even without any overt attempt on your part to claim credit (EN: this probably needs to be "especially" without, as people who claim credit for the work of others earn a bad reputation, whereas people who are humble about their role gain a positive one.)

The specific example he gives is the need for a new auditorium to be built, a very large and expensive project. While he recognized this and wanted to act on it right away, he knew that it would take time to build the personal credibility he would need to get the congregation to support the plan - and if he had been too eager and too hasty, he would have undermined his own ability to lead.

(EN: My sense is that this can also work in reverse: a person who demonstrates charisma can get cooperation immediately that will be more difficult to garner once people have come to know him better. Consider how most Presidents of the US get excellent support from congress in their fist few months in office - but as time passes and their popularity wanes, they are unable to sustain influence, and seem to have difficulty gathering support for their ideas. I have a sense that this is the tactic of a weak leader, who predicts that support will wither rather than grow over time.)