Over many decades of advising leaders of growing companies, certain patterns emerge. Perhaps the most powerful is what I call “the Rule of One.” Simply put, the Rule of One is this: whenever you find yourself believing or acting as though any “one” thing, person, idea, time, formula, or form of value is all-important, it’s the surest sign that you are missing the bigger picture and, along with it, the threat or opportunity at your doorstep.
The Indispensable Person. The Rule of One is forged by a series of fictions. The first concerns the so-called indispensable person, the one who if lost, it’s believed, would irreparably wound the entire organization. Though you’d think otherwise, generally it isn’t the leader who’s cast in this light. More often it’s the software engineer with the valuable coding skills, or the salesperson with the storied network of connections. Many times it’s simply the person who’s done a job for so long that no one can imagine it getting done without that person.
But the truth is blunt: no one is indispensable. No doubt there can be bumps when someone quits or is fired. But even in small firms, the parade marches on. Those that remain soon discover they’re invested not in the indispensable person, but in the place they work, and therefore highly incented to see it adapt and succeed far beyond any “one”. Abraham Lincoln once remarked that he was more concerned with losing 100 horses than a general, no matter how good the general. He wasn’t just honest–he was wise.
The Big Idea. But the Rule of One’s relevance isn’t limited to people. Consider ideas. In hindsight, a great idea is too easily seen as immaculately born and immediately valuable. We’re drawn to such fictions by the fairytale hope that there’s such a thing as lightning-bolt brilliance or solutions that suddenly drop from the sky. The truth is far less heroic and far more pedestrian.
Big, creative, market-moving ideas are the result of a gradual accumulation of many smaller ideas. Breakthrough ideas ripple across time, as Where Good Ideas Come From author Steven Johnson says, rather than occur in an enormous rogue wave from out of nowhere. More than speculate, Johnson in fact tracked the major human advancements over several centuries to verify this pattern of one small idea linking to a web of other small ideas, and only appear as a single big idea in the rear view. My past three decades of work and research with hundreds of growing ventures has shown the same pattern.
The Perpetual Leader. Every now and then the myth of the indispensable person is tied to the person at the top, and nearly all such instances involve leaders who also happen to be founders. Founders represent a unique amalgam of many forms of the Rule of One all wrapped up in a single person. Periodically there are founders who are seen, or see themselves, as the cornerstone of the organization and the fountainhead of ideas. And the fact that their ventures wouldn’t have been started without them can make both things appear to be true. But as research by author Noam Wasserman (author of The Founder’s Dilemma) has shown, by the time a venture is three years old 50 percent of founders are no longer in charge, a cliff-like decline that continues to plummet by upwards of 10 percent every year thereafter. Even founders aren’t “the one” forever.
Tellingly, most founders are in fact forced to step down and shocked when asked to relinquish control. How, they wonder, could anyone not see that they are “the one”–the one with the vision, the desire, and the tenacity, and therefore the one best to lead? But the Rule of One teaches that there is no “for-all-time” for anything. There is only “this” time, at this moment, with its own unique variables, needs, and opportunities. The trick is to perpetually search for and allow the optimal mix of person, idea, market, method, and more. When you find yourself believing otherwise, it’s the surest sign that it’s time to think again.