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Being a Good Boss versus Being a Great Social Entrepreneur

The New York Times ran a much talked about article this past weekend.  “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss” is a fascinating look at an attempt by the search engine behemoth to analyze its managers.  Google data mined its performance reviews to determine what defines good leaders.  The results were somewhat obvious: have a clear vision, be results oriented, etc.  What was important about the exercise was not the findings, but that Google had hard numbers from a large sample size to back up these otherwise anodyne conclusions.

I’ve often thought about this issue within the context of social entrepreneurship. For me, the variation on Google’s question is “How do you build a better social entrepreneur?”  This is closely related, since every social entrepreneur is also primarily “the boss”.  An ability to play that role well dictates their ability to succeed at their social enterprise.

When I say “succeed”, I mean on a large scale. I don’t mean that they just keep their staff happy (Google’s benchmark), nor that they succeed in keep the lights on and the bills paid.  What I mean is that they transform the world, they shift the equilibrium.  [Sally Osberg at Skoll has a great essay on this, I recommend reading it.]

My conclusion (to date) is somewhat different than Google’s.  When I look at all the truly successful social entrepreneurs I know, they are a very diverse group.  Compare Matt Flannery from Kiva to Molly Melching from Tostan. Or Andrew Youn of One Acre Fund to Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat.  Each of them has different backgrounds, personalities, and leadership styles.  They are not just “apples and oranges”, but also tangerines and pineapples.


Matt Flannery (Apples)



Molly Melching (Oranges)


But there is one common characteristic and increasingly I am convinced that this is the one absolutely necessary element. Without it, they would never succeed as social entrepreneurs.

Each of them is unreasonable.

Each of them unreasonably believed they could do something, or change something, or build something on a scale that others knew to be impossible or at least very improbable.  Nonetheless, they launched off, unreasonably expecting to succeed.

That quality is missing from Google’s list. What they’ve listed may make “better” bosses, but they won’t make great social entrepreneurs.


"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)

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  1. This was a great post and I loved the quote at the end. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in response the the NY Times article!

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  3. Great post, especially the GBS quote at the end. Check out for a glimpse of a new game-changers in Canada. Totally unreasonable and totally possible!

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