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Don't be a Hero

Craig Zelizer

March 23, 2017

Khan Koubrat had five sons. One day, sensing that death was near and worried about the future of his kingdom, he called his sons. “Try breaking these sticks,” he told his oldest, giving him a bundle of sticks. The son exerted all his strength, and failed. One after the other the sons triedto break the sticks and couldn’t. Finally, Koubrat unbundled the sticks and broke them all, one by one. “Well, anyone could do it like that!” his sons exclaimed in one voice.

Does that legend sound familiar? Perhaps you recognize it as a fable by Aesop, or you have heard it in Native American folklore. “Strength in unity” is a universal concept.

If there is one lesson I want you to remember, it is this: don’t be a hero. Be a leader. Collaborate. Unite with others. Believe that the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts. That’s how you create social change.

I know you. You are driven by passion. You can’t stand injustice. You have to take action NOW. Social change absolutely must take place here and now. But as a changemaker, you have to approach change as a process. And be patient. And strategic. And stop acting like a hero.

Sometimes we are so wrapped up being driven and passionate that we forget we are not alone.

There are too many people out there who want to start (or currently run) a nonprofit or social enterprise. While that’s admirable, the world doesn’t need yet another small organization, or yet another smart, driven individual to run off into the wild and chase windmills for the next thirty years.

The world needs stronger networks and communities of changemakers (just like what PCDN strives to foster) who work together on the broadest, toughest challenges. The world needs you to be a leader, not a hero.



You are a leader. Everyone is a leader. You don’t need a title or formal authority. You don’t have to wait for someone to crown you. (Well, I guess I just did, huh?) What you do need, though, is to become the leader you want to be. That’s fairly simple, and also takes a lifetime.


Start now:

  1. Get to know yourself. Reflect. Discover your strengths. Reaffirm your values. Take care of yourself and never stop learning.
  2. Get to know others. Don’t judge. Accept. Respect people for who they are. Honor them for who they are becoming.
  3. Reveal yourself. Be authentic and vulnerable. Show your passion. Inspire and let yourself be inspired. In other words --Collaborate


Leaders are not heroes. Leaders are collaborators. Leaders are multipliers - they figure out how to enable others to be their best selves. Leaders are uniters - they seek allies and build relationships. They understand they can’t do it on their own:

  • Learning is social: learning fosters growth and growth creates greater impact. We learn best when we interact with others, when we debate ideas, when we exchange best practices. Seek people to learn with .
  • You are not a (super)hero: you have strengths, you have more strengths than you realize! But you don’t have ALL the strengths. And that’s okay. Because many other people have strengths you don’t have. Find people with complementary strengths .
  • Two heads are better than one. The beauty of collaboration is that the whole could be significantly greater than the sum of its parts. But not always. You have the find the right people who share your values and goals and bring different perspectives. Don’t go at it alone.


Now What?

To collaborate, you have to find people to collaborate with. Here are 5 ways to get started:

  • Be a giver (and not a taker) - check out these 10 easy ways suggested by Adam Grant, and start a “Reciprocity Ring” in your organization or larger network.
  • Connect deeply with people - a study by psychologist Arthur Aron shows that strangers can build a deep relationship when they answer a series of personal questions. Get a “Connect” deck and start connecting more authentically!
  • Work Out Loud - build relationships to help you further a personal or professional goal.
  • Seek out relevant communities of practice - you will meet and learn from individuals who work in a similar field and share similar values and interests. (Start with Collaboration 4 Development).
  • Become part of other communities like PCDN to meet fellow changemakers. And if you live in Washington, DC, join LeadIN.
  1. The inscription on the Bulgarian parliament building today reads “unity makes strength.”

Could you guess what Khan Koubrat’s sons actually did after he died? Get in touch to find out.

Or google it.

Zarko Palankov is a relator, thinker and builder. He seeks ways to connect ideas, people and organizations, to create platforms for learning, collaboration and growth, and to fundamentally change the leadership paradigm: how we work together toward a common vision. He is currently building a social venture, LeadIN , whose mission is to enable you to become the leader you are. LeadIN brings people together to learn, share, and grow their leadership.

Feel free to contact Zarko at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @leadincommunity.

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