The dark side of linchpins

Seth Godin uses linchpins as a metaphor for people who are indispensable. These people hold things together much as a physical linchpin holds together a mechanical system. But the metaphor works in a couple ways that I don’t believe the author intended.

First, linchpins are invisible. When was the last time you looked at a complex mechanical system and your eyes were immediately drawn to a linchpin? People who hold things together are often unsung heroes. They do such a good job that they don’t draw attention to themselves. People who prevent fires are harder to notice than people who put out fires.

Second, and more importantly, linchpins have to stay in place. Remove a linchpin and something comes apart. A human linchpin can never be promoted or work on new projects because they’re indispensable right where they are. Managers may show their appreciation for a linchpin, or they may react out of fear and resentment when they realize their dependence. They may even do a weird mixture of both.

Seth Godin’s Linchpin book was a fun read. I just wish he had picked something other than linchpins as his metaphor for people who are highly valued. And I wish he hadn’t used the word “indispensable.” Too often indispensable people are not highly valued.

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10 thoughts on “The dark side of linchpins

  1. Jonathan Mugan

    The linchpins that you point to are worth discussing in their own right. It’s an interesting problem to consider how to identify them and motivate them to stay exactly where they are. Back when I was a consultant, I remember one guy in particular at a client company who knew so many low-level details that no one else knew, and who did a good job staying on top of everything. I remember thinking that this guy probably wasn’t being paid near enough.

  2. I think in many cases, though, linchpins are exactly as you described it – invisible and when they leave things fall apart. Godin’s book give positive examples. I wonder how many of those linchpins were unappreciated, left some place that fell apart and then became the example in his book.

    I remember a manager quoting an article in a San Jose paper ranting about those spoiled programmers getting free soft drinks, free cappuccino, free parking and all these high salaries. He said treat the spoiled brats like everyone else, what are they going to do? Interestingly, 80% of the “linchpins”, the really good programmers, many of whom were the “invisible type” , left that company within a couple of years.

    Apparently, what they’re going to do is quit and go work somewhere else where they are appreciated.

  3. Brendan Dowling

    Reminds me of the saying, “If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.”

  4. The Captain Kirk Syndrome — too valuable to promote, and too ambitious to stay content in a particular “job”.
    What kept Captain Kirk in the game, besides his faith in Starfleet’s mission, even as he was bending its’ rules beyond recognition?
    For one, each mission was different — he would seduce a member of an alien race one episode, and in the next he would jam a photon torpedo up the alimentary canal of another alien race. So you could say variety (and a perhaps rather too-long leash) kept the Cap’n “engaged” (oops, mixing series up here…)
    His example probably doesn’t apply to many whom we might call linchpins — that is, their function doesn’t offer much variety or autonomy.
    But knowing that might offer some guidance as to how to make one’s work more rewarding and more valuable.

  5. I’m not a native speaker, but I have the impression that you are describing ‘irreplacable’, rather than indispensable – which imo refers to the level of emotional labor you put into everything you do.

    Sure, companies will want to keep you in a certain spot because they see you function well and you get things done by who you are rather than by what you do.

    However, Linchpins are also the ones who wil grow into something bigger by virtue of their emotional labor. Granted: this path will in 99% of the cases be different from the ‘career path’ that is provided (or rather ‘done to’) people.

    So I guess I disagree with your statements above.

    Best regards,

  6. Indispensable and marginalized: not a good combination. Translation: pay your employee their market worth and treat them well, keep them challenged, or you’ll wish you had when they inevitably leave.

  7. So many Great Comments! I wanted to add, John, that I think that you make the case for the ‘linchpin’ metaphor being the right one. I think its also important to remember that sometimes people below you are too important to their job/role to promote. Its a good idea to take advice from them, and allow them to lead from below, whenever you can. This is, in-particular, and important component of what made Chevy’s Plant at Nummi different. If everyone can be a leader by proposing a solution, you have the benefit of the best leadership, a leadership of doing.

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