March 24, 2008

How To Recruit a Small Army

If you want to take over the world, or at least change it in a positive way, you’re going to need an army to back you up.

Your army does not need to be large, nor does it need to consist of full-time troops. Some of the best armies are purposely lean on bodies, but never on overall commitment to the cause.

You might think that armies are best suited to achieving the goals of a group, but don’t be misled. Even highly-individualistic goals, like starting a business or visiting every country in the world, will benefit greatly from the support of a small army.

Characteristics of the Average Small Army

Be careful! Armies can desert, or even worse, mutiny. Proper care of your small army is required. To begin with, you need to recognize the following features of armies, which are fairly common across different disciplines:

  • Armies are loyal as long as they are inspired. Stop providing inspiration, and the army will stop paying attention.
  • Armies like to be paid. You don’t have to pay them in money. Instead, pay them in attention, recognition, goodwill, and other intangible benefits.
  • Armies enjoy responsibility and specialization. They like to be given authority over a project and they like to be accountable for it.
  • Armies like specific field assignments. A lot of leaders abdicate to their armies—”just go and do it somehow”—instead of delegate. This wears the army down. Most conscripts want parameters, mission briefings, and field intelligence. They want to know someone is checking up on them and looking out for them.

Recruitment Strategy

So, you want to take over the world. Or you want to do something else that requires some help. How do you recruit an army?

1. Look around you. Your greatest supporters are the people closest to you. Before you do anything else, get their advice.

2. Ask for help. A remarkable thing happens when you ask for help: you learn where people stand. On the one hand, some friends that you expected to be there for you won’t come forward. This can be disappointing, but on the other hand, you’ll usually find new supporters who regularly go above and beyond your expectations.

3. Advertise. Put out your shingle. Announce your plans. Set up a sign-up list for people who will willingly help you take over the world. Don’t worry about the ones who don’t enlist; focus on the ones who do.

4. Do something great, and people will naturally follow. Give them a good reason, and they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you.

What To Do with Your Army

Once you have a small army, you need to put it to work. Armies want to do something, whether invading another country or helping with a coup in their own country. An army sitting around all the time isn’t good for morale, so even if you get them out cleaning up after a hometown flood, at least you have them busy.

Important Note: Sending your army off to work does not mean sending them to do “busy-work” or tasks that have no value. No one likes that, and there should be more than enough legitimate assignments for your team anyway.

Social causes are good, but armies will work for businesses too. Every good retail or service business knows that a certain percentage of customers—usually about 2-4%– are hyper-loyal. These customers will buy absolutely every product you make. They don’t even need to be sold; you just tell them where to go and they do it. Customers like that have fully signed up for your Special Forces division. Take good care of them, and they’ll stick with you for life.

Real-World Examples: University, Cubicle, Church, NGO

In academia, a strange paradox keeps many students and faculty in a hypertensive environment. Everyone is expected to think critically, but at the same time everyone is under tremendous pressure to conform. Sadly, there are stronger norms among people who value free-thinking than almost anywhere else. Do something truly different that breaks away from these norms, and others will flock to you in search of relief from the ordinary.

In cubicle land, you can build a small army by making your primary goal to help others instead of making yourself look good. I don’t mean in addition to, I mean instead of. Sure, you may not get ahead in the eyes of superiors, but you’ll build your own brand that you can then take elsewhere. Whether they admit it or not, most knowledge workers have a large percentage of their work week that is relatively undefined. They can spend it reading every article on CNN.com, making themselves look good, or making others look good. And there’s not much worth reading on CNN lately.

In the average church, the committed volunteers will often do more work than the paid staff members. Most churches need some staff members, but the most productive churches use the paid staff to coordinate the army of volunteers. The church will rise or fall on the commitment of its volunteers.

In the non-profit world, you bring in a few business skills and the non-business folks will be amazed. People who save the world for a living are sometimes afraid of corporate systems, so you have to move in slowly. But when you produce great results, your army will line up outside the door. They’ll look to you for the skills they don’t have. You’ll be a leader regardless of your title.

***

Here’s a few specific examples of real-world armies:

Run 50 Marathons – Traveling with a photographer and a dietician, Sam Thompson ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. Along the way he acquired a following of fellow running fanatics and other people who just thought he was pretty crazy in a good way.

I’m one of them. A year and a half later, I am still amazed at Sam’s achievement. I ran 1 marathon in 1 state in 1 day a while back and thought that was good enough for me. And then I did it again a year later, but 2 in 1 in 365 isn’t nearly as cool as 50 in 50 in 50.

Start a Social Movement for Video Games – These guys live across the water from me in Bellevue, Washington. They write a tri-weekly comic strip filled with inside jokes that is read by millions of people. A few years ago they started putting on video game conventions for a few thousand of their closest friends, and going from online comic strip to massive convention wasn’t easy. They needed an army, and they found one in their massively loyal (but not always well-balanced) fans.

Last year they moved out of the Bellevue conference center, which was already huge, into the enormous Washington State Visitors and Convention Center in downtown Seattle. Their work isn’t for everyone, but they know that—their work is for their own small (or perhaps not-so-small now) army.

Charity without Borders – After coming to Africa and seeing how much different life was in Cotonou compared to New York City, my friend Scott Harrison decided to bring clean water to everyone in the world. He’s doing it here, and he already has 13,000 volunteers helping him so far.

ZenHabits – Leo Babauta over at ZenHabits has recruited a massively effective small army in just a year. His army religiously reads his articles, submits his posts to social networking sites, and helped him turn pro recently. Leo is a full-time writer now, thanks to the army he has built up by providing great value over time.

***

People want to believe in something, so give it to them. Give them a vision and a task. Give them a reason why you (or your business, or your cause) is different.

Think about your greatest goals in life. What kind of army do you need? Figure it out, and start recruiting.

By the way, I need some help with my own goals, too. If you like my writing so far, please join the team. (You can be released from service at anytime.) You can also help by sharing these posts with the world.

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Comment on this article

30 Responses to “How To Recruit a Small Army”

  1. Hi! I got here through Shai’s blog. You do write very well! :) I’m spreading the love by submitting this to StumbleUpon. Wonderful insights!

  2. Thanks, Toni! I appreciate that.

  3. Thanks Chris for a fun angle on a interesting topic! You can join my creative army any day!

  4. Hey Chris, I’m trying to organize a small army myself right now, and a friend sent me this webpage to help me with my approach. Thanks for the good advice!

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  6. June 21, 2008

    Anonymous

    Hey thanks for the article, man. I am planning a coup d’etat right now and this reading really helped.

  7. @Anonymous,

    That’s great; let me know how that works out.

  8. This is a great post. I recently put together a small army of folks who are helping to finance / get the word out about a project called Millennials Changing America – a millennial led study about millennial activism. Without the people who have helped me every step of the way – from the dozens of people who are hosting me through Couchsurfing, to the organization representatives who are blogging about the event, to the folks who are offering small, person-to-person donations, this simply would not be happening.

    I’ve worked as an organizer/promoter, etc. for 7 years and it’s taken a while to figure out how, exactly, some of these skills work. I am still learning from watching others who do their job (recruit / stir the post / organize) much better than I do, by reading as much as I can about the subject, and of course by doing it as much as my life requires me to.

  9. I’m part of your army. I’m excited about watching it continue to grow, Chris.

  10. I salute you! No really, I do. I am a soldier and we do that for respect. I have learned tons already from reading your posts. Keep it coming!

  11. Great article, I have joined your army for sure. This is a great way to look at changing the world. Do what you love, Enjoy what you do, Make it meaningful and you have a purpose that attracts.
    Thank you for being! Look forward to more.

  12. April 24, 2009

    Michael Henry

    I am going to print out fliers right now to start my own army…something about raising consciousness….Thanks guys:)

  13. Hey Chris,

    Love your posts. Definately joining your army!

  14. Read your book over the weekend and now this post of sagely timeless relevance. Well written.

    Will keep an eye on your travels.

  15. Great post. If there was ever a time where recruiting and leading an army was a necessity, now’s the time. Especially since the only real barrier is our own fear of the first step.

    Love the posts, love what you’re about. Keep it up.

    Rock on.

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  18. Hey,

    I guess I’m part of the army too!
    I’m glad I found your website Chris, you’re doing very well and I’m truly inspired by you.

    Give us a shout if you ever stop by London!

  19. Wow. I know that this comment comes far too late in the history of this blog to matter but, this was the best article I have read thus far on your site. It was actionable, inspirational and filled with examples. I particularly liked the characteristics of the army section. Thanks.

  20. I’d love to recruit an army and change the world, but right now I have to feed the baby and get the dishes done… it’s the war on dishes.

  21. Cheers to meeting a kindred spirit. It’s so easy to be resigned that one person can’t make a difference and undo the inertia of BS hurled daily. Thanks for being a cup of water along my marathon to heal the planet with music.

    I am in your army, and you may join my tribe any time you want!

  22. Hi Chris (you know, I feel like I know you already)!

    I need your advice when it comes to building an army. I am in the beginning of “Being Remarkable” and I’m slowly figuring out what I want to do in life. The problem is, I want to start doing, but I don’t feel brave enough to tell my RL friends. (Which means, I think, that I shouldn’t even call them friends, but that’s another story.. )

    How to recruit a small army when you don’t want to start with those close to you?

  23. cool and interesting take on armies :) here’s to positive social change . . .

    Amelia.x

  24. As always, very inspirational! Thank you, I am reading all your post.

  25. Hi Chris,

    Very well written post. I’d love to do a spinoff of the subject over on my blog. I’ve been facilitating peer groups whom meet via teleconference since 2004… It’s my version of small army creation where we have 1 facilitator and 7 participating members. It works pretty well.

    BTW – loved your book and Travel Cartel is awesome too… just got 50,000 one pass miles and 20,000 hilton points this week!

  26. I am so glad I came across your blog by chance, it is throughly inspiring. I am London based wedding photographer and so much still applies to what I do. Plus I love to travel! I have recently picked up one of your books to and I can’t wait to read it.

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  29. I found your site from ManvsDebt, and I appreciate the time you’ve taken to identify what it takes to build a following. I can see why your following is growing!

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