Converting the Middle 60%

By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan

A friend of mine gave me a great piece of advice over dinner the other day. It went something like this:

About 20% of people in society just don’t get it. They can’t follow simple directions, they’re lazy, and they’re unreliable. They do the minimum amount to get by (if that) and getting anything else is like trying to push a car up a mountain. 

About 60% of people in the world are followers. They do what they’re told. They’re capable of doing their jobs and you can generally rely on them to do what they say, when they say, within reason. You can motivate and incentivize them to go beyond the bare minimum but it’s not something that they would do on their own. 

The last 20% are leaders. They create and innovate. They find out new ways to solve problems and don’t play by the book. More often than not, they throw it out the window. They are sellers — not of goods or services, but of vision and ideas. They are the ones the other 80% look to for guidance and inspiration. Where the followers, say, “what do I do now,” the leaders respond, “what will create value? What will solve a problem? What has never been tried before?”

This may sound like the entrepreneurs, CEOs, politicians and other “typical” leaders, but that’s an oversimplification. The physics researcher that asks, “Why does an atom behave this way?” and finds a way to answer his question is a leader too. They are people who answer questions by asking new ones, and who know how to motivate the other 80% of society to their side.

And we are not training leaders.

America’s educational system is what put it on the map. Unfortunately, it now appears to be a key factor in the erosion of our international prestige. And the problem isn’t money — it’s culture. To be sure, money is a necessary input, and the trend toward cutting education budgets is just exacerbating the problem. But the fundamental problem is that students are not properly incentivized to lead.

Think about how backwards your educational experience has been. In elementary school, there are all sorts of creative exercises designed to teach you new concepts in meaningful, relatable ways. Do you remember all the hands-on activities and field trips we got to do in elementary school? Why does that stop when you hit puberty? I’m not saying we should play with macaroni until we turn 18, but the need for educators to innovate new ways of transferring knowledge shouldn’t end when you enter middle school.

When I was in third grade, we learned about basic economics by bringing things we wanted to sell to school (old toys, food, etc.) and set up mini-businesses. No real cash was exchanged but we were able to use our “mini-society credits” to bid in an auction on cooler toys when we were done. I think I learned more about the world in that exercise alone than I did during the following 5 years of school. That experience taught me how the pieces we talked about in class fit together in the “real” world. Moreover, exercises like that taught me what motivates people — even if it was just to buy my piece of crap Dragonball Z action figure. And understanding motivation is what really makes leaders.

Why do we test skills by asking people to recall information they won’t remember in 3 months? If I know the history of World War II, does that mean I really understand how it’s shaped the world we live in today (outside of us not all speaking German)? I took an accounting course this year that encouraged me not to truly understand the material, but to memorize formulas and facts and regurgitate it in way too little time. Why not give me some information and ask me to construct an income statement from scratch? It would suck, but I’d have a transferrable skill. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a handful of classes that armed me with the tools I needed and simply said, “go,” but they have been too few and far between.

I mention these scenarios because leaders need to know how to take what resources are given to them (knowledge, people, etc.) and put them together into the best possible output. Most assignments are zero-sum games — they’re either right or wrong. But that’s not how leaders operate in the real world. That middle 60% operates in black and white, right and wrong dichotomies. The upper 20% not only thinks outside the box, they say fuck the box and use a table.

Knowing how to motivate others and creatively solve problems are the two bedrocks of leadership. Let me design my own experiment to test F = ma rather than giving me a toy car and a ramp. Maybe I’ll spark your mind with something unique. Make me tell you what I think I need to know in order to solve a problem, then help me fill in the cracks. Our educational system places too much emphasis on knowing how to solve rigidly-defined questions without worrying about situations in which there is no clear method for approaching it, let alone solving it.

When you get to college, professors have finally started to wrap their heads around this concept. It’s not perfect, but they have the freedom and passion to experiment — to be leaders themselves. It’s that middle and high school range where teachers stop innovating. I had quite a few that did because I was in the International Baccalaureate program, but my experience outside of it wasn’t pretty. Is it the fault of overly-strict government rules? Probably to some extent. Change-averse unions? Poorly-incentivized teachers? Meh, maybe. Regardless, just as we’ve started to shift the conversation from “what” to “why,” we also need to focus on teaching people the “how.”

Leaders are not born. They’re incubated, nurtured, educated and grown. Sure, some people just don’t have the capacity to be leaders. But if we can convert some of those middle 60%, we’ll leave society in a much better state than we inherited.



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


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