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Instead of seeking the gold and glory for yourself, sell “shovels” to your team so they can strike gold, better their lives, and achieve the team’s mission together.
Depending on where you’re from, you may not have heard of Samuel Brannan. Known as the first millionaire during the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th Century, Brannan had been a Mormon missionary directed by the church to take hundreds of followers by ship from New York (yes, through the Drake Passage) to Yerba Buena, California (present-day San Francisco). He hoped to colonize the area and develop a new headquarters for the Mormons. But his plans were rejected by Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon church, who instead settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. This left Brannan disillusioned and frustrated.
As the only church leader in the San Francisco Bay area, Brannan continued to receive tithes from his members, but out of spite, did not send them back to Utah. Members soon left him, and he used the church’s money to open a store near Sutter’s Mill, east of Sacramento. It was at his new business where he was first paid in gold for his goods. Brannan owned the only store between San Francisco and Sacramento, so he used the opportunity to sell picks, shovels, and pans to miners hoping to strike it rich.
During his life, Samuel Brannan was not known as a very honorable man. His greed and selfishness left him alone and broke by the time he died. By no means does he embody the principles of good leadership. But if we look between the lines of his life, we can see that he stumbled upon a powerful idea that we can learn from. By selling shovels, he enabled others to strike gold and the possibility to make a better life for their families.
The story of Samuel Brannan is one of the most well-known narratives circulating today in the business world. But from his story, we can learn two powerful leadership lessons. First, unlike Brannan, you should not (and cannot) be of the mindset of enriching yourself at all costs. This is fundamental to understand before you ever think about leading anyone. Your people will leave you, just like they left him to head to Utah.
Second, while your people should not (and will not) be paying you in gold or money for your guidance, you as the leader of an organization must provide the “shovels” for your team so they can do their jobs and work towards achieving success of the overall mission. Instead, they will pay you in their time and their effort. And unlike the Gold Rush, where very few people struck gold with their shovels, your people will be rewarded with confidence, empowerment, and a genuine sense of accomplishment.
One of the finest examples I’ve ever seen of a leader selling shovels is in the brilliant documentary, Last Chance U: Basketball. In it, the head basketball coach of a junior college team in East Los Angeles, John Mosley, is the exact opposite of Samuel Brannan, yet he follows the same principle. Brannan sold shovels for his own personal gain. Mosley provides “shovels” so the kids on his team can improve their own lives. He meets with them one-on-one, he seeks to understand them, he listens to them, he prays for them, and he pushes them harder than they’ve ever been pushed in their lives. These are the “shovels” of good leadership. In giving his team the tools they need to succeed in basketball and in life, all Mosley asks for in return is their commitment and their effort. That is what selling shovels looks like in leadership.
It’s critical to understand that if the miners in California didn’t have the money to pay Brannan, they could not get their shovels. The transaction should always work the same way on your team. If someone you lead doesn’t pay you with their commitment, effort, and teachability, they should not receive a shovel. Simply, if they cannot meet you halfway, or even a quarter of the way, why should they be empowered with tools to succeed? If they get a shovel for not putting in the work, everyone else on the team will expect a shovel for similar reasons. Therefore, you must set a high price for your shovels.
Leadership is not for seeking gold and glory. It is for empowering your team with tools to succeed at the price of commitment, effort, and teachability.
Sell the shovels.