What I know about fulfilling potential: Matthew Barzun

Guest editor Simon Sinek has nominated a series of people who he believes we can all learn from when it comes to fulfilling our potential in 2018. Next up is Matthew Barzun, who has learnt how to get the best out of both himself and others through careers in business, politics and diplomacy.

Simon on Matthew

"I have learned more from Matthew than most other people I have met. Matthew understands that our potential is truly unlocked when we work together. His ideas on teaming and how networks work allow for entire groups of people to unleash their potential."

Matthew Barzun is arguably best known as the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, however this title doesn’t tell half his story. His volunteer work on Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign won him many plaudits, after he implemented a grassroots movement which enabled citizen fundraisers to fuel Obama’s rise to power. Four years later President Obama would appoint Barzun as the National Finance Chair for his 2012 re-election campaign.

He has navigated the business world, holding executive positions at organisations such as CNET Networks, and also served as the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. He currently lives in Kentucky with his wife and their three children. Here Matthew explains what he's learnt about inspiring others and those who have inspired his own success.

We need to decide which ALSO we’re going to live by. We’re so often encouraged in our workplaces to learn how to argue, to lead other people, strategise and organise. That’s what we can call ‘ALSO’ (Argue, Lead, Strategize and Organise). That’s a very classic, hierarchical set of skills to learn. It’s an approach that probably won us D-Day and landed a man on the moon, so it’s an approach.

However what I’ve come to learn is that there’s another way of thinking, feeling, working and seeing the world - we can call that ALSO too. Ask others, Listen to others, Serve others and Open up to others. Those things, I think, are not as encouraged as much in our school system or corporate training but they should be. The first way tasks people with assignments, the second way asks people to work with you.

What I know about fulfilling potential: Bruce Deel

President Obama taught me to look for the power in other people. Right towards the end of my time in London President Obama came to the UK for the last time in his presidency. He took the time to meet with 750 members of the Young Leaders UK group in a town hall meeting, where he’d roll up his sleeves and answer any questions. He got this very simple question from a young woman who was there, which was "do you have any tips for trying to make change?". I thought he must have got that question a million times and would have a well-rehearsed answer, but it didn’t come out that way. He had a lovely phrase that went “well, we ought to be predisposed to see the power in other people and get them to do great things". It can be so easy to focus on yourself, but if you look for the power in others then great things can happen.

It’s tempting to try and insert another nugget into the minds of the women and men reading this, but I’d like to try and take something out instead. I’m pretty sure this thing is in there and I’m also pretty sure it’s not helpful. I would ask everyone to get a pen and paper and doodle the first image that pops into their head when they think of the word ‘idea’.

Everybody tends to draw a lightbulb when asked to do this, just do a Google image search for 'idea' and you will see thousands of lightbulbs floating strangely along in space, disconnected from everyone and everything, usually with little lines of light emanating from the bulb. We all carry that around in our minds, it’s a visual cliché. It’s deeply unhelpful when it comes to thinking of the nature of innovation and the power of an idea. I would argue that, at best, and idea is an unlit lightbulb and in order to get light it needs a source of power and a connection. The source of power is other people, we already know we can’t move forward without the help of friends, families and colleagues. So that leaves connections, real human connections.

To understand connections I turn to British comedian Jimmy Carr, rather than a proverb. I interviewed him before and he said "Jokes are strange things, Matthew. If you sing a song and nobody likes it then it’s still a song. If you put on a play and everyone walks out in disgust then it’s still a play. But if you tell a joke and nobody laughs then it’s just a sentence."

That is so profound. To me that gets right down to the truth of making a real connection. It’s a mutuality, both the comedian and the audience do their part and together they make a joke. Have you made a real connection with someone? You need to apply the Jimmy Carr test to work it out. If we want to light up a company, a movement or the world then we need to make connections with those around us.

Read: Simon Sinek on fulfilling potential

We need to forget about winning arguments. How many people like to lose an argument? Not many. So if nobody likes to lose an argument then we do we try and convince ourselves that we’re in the argument winning business? It’s just really bad maths. Up to the age of 20 I would do a lot of debating, trying to get really sharp at winning arguments. But in the years since then most of the good things I’ve been involved in haven’t been about winning arguments.

Seth Godin has this wonderful image, where he splits the world into hunting and farming. If you’re in a field with 10 deer and are in a hunting mentality then you might manage to get one, but the other nine will run away. Hunting is about dividing and farming is about multiplying. Arguing falls into the dividing category too, you might ‘win’ but you’ll scare off people in the process.


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