Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Malcolm Gladwell as he spoke to a few groups of clients we assembled at Goldman Sachs. He made a strong case that change doesn’t always have to take time – that it can happen instantly – and that the catalyst behind instant change comes from what he described as “social power.”
He explained that social power is different than economic or political power. It is not correlated with social status or demographics. Rather, these are people with the special ability to connect to others en masse. They tend to always be in the know, and they are respected, but not in a hierarchical way.
My friend Erin Brannan spent a few years in the Peace Corps, stationed on the small island of St. Vincent off the coast of Barbados. When I visited her there, I was struck by the impact she was having on the community. She explained to me that helping to develop schools or improving healthcare was nice, but that the lasting impact would only come from identifying and training the particular individuals that would perpetuate the good work for years to come. Over the course of a long conversation one evening, we termed these people the “hot spots.”
Whether on the island of St. Vincent or within a large organization, the hot spots are the people with social power. They are respected within the community without having the scrutiny that isolates and ultimately limits the potential of formal leaders. As we try to lead change in our own lives, we should depend less on formal power plays and top-down transformations. Instead, we should seek out and engage the hot spots to ensure a lasting impact.