101 - Great leaders enjoy the deepest level of our permission

18-09-2023

leadership and org culture

Learning permission marketing from an ex train ticket examiner

In the wake of something special that happened in the wee hours of Tuesday in a western corner of India, I explore leadership. Not the usual business kind but that which transcends domains. Transcendent leadership. And I do it by holding up the career of a man feted and admired by millions in India and beyond. But this is no hagiography. That’s not my intent. My interest is in exploring how the very best leaders are models of desire and how they shape our collective and individual wants. To that end, the greatest leaders are the best marketers. That is the point I hope to make, and show you at least one way they do this.

The premise of permission marketing is simple. In an age of infinite options we have to make do with finite attention. We’re constantly poked and prodded to part with smaller and smaller slices of our attention by marketers of products. More marketing spends and thinner margins for the producer, more noise for the consumer. It is a race to the bottom.

Permission marketing bucks this trend by first securing permission from strangers to offer them something of value and then building on that initial permission to take them on a journey that’s _anticipated, personal, and relevant _to them. Along the way, it converts…

_Strangers _

_To Friends _

_To Customers _

To Loyal Customers

Until they become Former Customers


Some time in 2007, a 26-year-old man from an eastern state in India changed millions of us from strangers to his friends. We gave him permission to do so. It happened in one shot, the result of a single spectacular campaign. We were happy to be converts.

Only a few years before, this young man had been an employee of the Indian Railways. He checked tickets on trains. Hardly anyone outside his immediate friends and family knew him.

All of that changed very quickly. First, he got our attention by pulling off something special. He won India the first ever T20 international cricket world cup there was. We were interrupted. Pleasantly so.

The very next year saw the beginnings of franchise cricket in India. That meant an exclusive window in our calendars when our friend would show up in familiar colors. This was pivotal to setting up a customer base and nurturing it.

Over the next decade and half, which is the length of a long career in most professional sports, he transformed strangers-turned-friends-turned-customers into loyal customers.

With every interaction, we found ourselves giving him permission for more. Where we used to give him just the odd evening here and there, we made an entire summer out of watching him and the team he led in action, always on the telly but also sometimes in person in a stadium in a strange city we traveled to just to catch him.

You only have to go so far back as the wee hours of Tuesday, May the 30th, to catch a whiff of his mania.


At the turn of the century, within the span of half a decade, two books launched two big ideas into the world of marketing. Don Peppers and Martha Rogers introduced the concept of _one-to-one marketing _in 1993 and Seth Godin brought to us _permission marketing _in 1999.

The premise for both was simple, complementary. You may even say obvious, today. The world has a lot of clutter. Attention is hard to get. Getting a new customer is expensive. So, marketers are better off working on getting more out of every customer through personalized experiences instead of spending more money to acquire more new customers.

Both build a hierarchy of proximity and trust. Where permission marketing focuses on creating customers out of prospects, one-to-one marketing takes customers and makes evangelists out of them.

One-to-one starts at the point one becomes a customer and looks _downstream _to create repeated experiences that expand the remit of the license customers give the brand.

Permission looks upstream. It approaches strangers, kicks off a conversation, cajoles them into friendships, and coaxes friends into becoming customers. All with their willing participation.

Together, permission and one-to-one marketing have marketers covered for the chain of interactions across a customer’s lifetime.


I don’t want this piece to be about leaving you suspended in suspense. The young man in our story is—perhaps you’ve guessed it already—Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Ex-India cricket captain; twice World Cup winner; five times winner of the Indian Premier League; and current captain of Chennai Super Kings, the most successful franchise in the world’s biggest T20 league.

What is remarkable to me is how he has gained the deepest level of permission from his legion of fans without ever marketing.

Trust and personalization are the pillars of good marketing. Trust is wound tight with permission. It is that elusive charge that takes years to fill up, yet a stray bad interaction can eat it all up.

How did Dhoni build and maintain trust?

Like all good permission marketers, Dhoni built familiarity first. He did this by working on _reach _and frequency. Reach was always there thanks to the trade he plied. But frequency was what set him apart. A single campaign, no matter how well run, is never enough to sell your product, let alone earn loyalty. Dhoni delivered, time and again. With each turn, he proved himself capable and earned a sliver more of our share of mind. This guy doesn’t lose his shit. This guy!

And how did he personalize experiences for us?

It’s time to introduce another, and the last one in this piece, hierarchy. Here are five levels of permission and whom they are typically reserved for.

Intravenous – for doctors and lawyers

Points (from frequent flier miles to raffles) – for products/services that offer rewards

Personal relationships – for client-side decision-makers making big purchase decisions

Brand trust – for brands with whom we associate specific attributes (design, comfort, quality)

Situation – for customer service staff (‘Which plan should I buy?’)

The list above is from Seth Godin, who came up with the ideas behind permission marketing. Godin argues that the highest level of permission is kept for doctors (and lawyers). We trust them so much that we let them decide what to inject into our bodies (hence intravenous). The permission levels travel all the way down to the situational consent we offer to staff at a restaurant where they may suggest what wine we pair our food with.

But Godin’s pecking order makes an assumption. It is that while personal relationships have the strongest say on our actions and behavior, they don’t scale. A sales executive will spend months nurturing a prospect before she’s able to push through an annual contract worth some thousands of dollars. Very little of this matters to the next prospect, with whom she has to build a new relationship.

Dhoni breaks this assumption. He scales personal permission. He doesn’t do this by pandering to each of us. He does it by being himself. But in being himself, he makes us see in him our aspirational selves. We want to want beyond our immediate material desires of wealth or success. We want to be a better version of ourselves. This version who doesn’t lose their cool and carries themselves well—we live vicariously through him. Each of us is in a conversation with him.

Seen this way, the Dhoni Loyalty Program is precisely personalized and infinitely scalable. It matches our needs and aspirations no matter who we are because each of us wants to be on the road to better and Dhoni owns that road. When stranded on a difficult stretch of our journey, many of us pause to ask, ‘What would Dhoni do?’ and then we find something in the answer to chug on.


It must be hard for Dhoni to be this totem, you may think. Well, yes and no.

Yes, because it is hard to be consistently calm, composed, decisive while in the public eye. But also no, because it is much harder to be anything else if you naturally are in the possession of those very attributes.

Dhoni doesn’t celebrate in the face of an opponent or doesn’t reprimand an outfielder who has dropped a match-turning catch. The meaning of such a moment to his die-hard fans who are hungrily savoring it is immense. Just like in the best loyalty programs, the cost of a point is next to nothing for Dhoni. He is simply being himself. Yet, the results are remarkable for the fans collecting such moments. ‘I was there,’ they say years later, doused in nostalgia.

It is hard to imagine another public persona enjoying the depth of permission that Mahendra Singh Dhoni does. His career is a monument to the best kind of marketing, the sustainable kind that moves people up the permission ladder with every interaction.

We may not buy a brand of tiles because Dhoni endorses it. But, tomorrow, if he opens a school, we will consider sending our kids there. If he sets up a hospital, we may send our parents there. If he runs a bank, we will sleep well if our money is in it. Such is the remit of permission we have given him.

This is even more striking in today’s cancel culture where the privilege of attention can so easily and quickly turn into the burden of saying and doing kosher things. To that end, Dhoni is an anomaly. Not that the rules of propriety don’t apply to him. He just doesn’t play by them.


‘Tapping into underdeveloped desires is typical of great leaders,’ writes Luke Burgis in his book Wanting. Burgis may not know Dhoni but he may well have been speaking about him here.

Transcendent leaders find a way to make us believe that life can be positive sum. They do so not in the manner of a conjurer’s trick. They do so by having us see beyond ourselves and our immediate environments without pitting our desires against those we may be competing with.

Professional team sports are notoriously zero-sum pursuits. Have a bad day or have an injury and there’s someone very capable waiting in the wings to take your place. And don’t expect to have your place back. There’s no guarantee. It is a job that comes stripped of psychological safety. In such a high-performance environment, listening to what Dhoni’s teammates and peers have to say about him is instructive.

With Dhoni there are no rousing speeches. There’s nothing to suggest he has a way with words. His powers of persuasion hang on the permission those in his orbit give him. And going by the evidence of these last two summer months, his orbit is sweeping.

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