Skin in the game

Johnny sticks it to the man

This man is Johnny Cash, the photo was taken when he recorded a live album in a concert at San Quentin maximum security prison in front of an audience of robbers, rapists and killers. Asked if he had a message for the prison authorities he struck this pose. Inside the warder’s prison, in front of all the wardens “guests” whilst singing his jolly song “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell


Follow me lads! I have a sword!

“Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly armed.”

-‘Fighting’ Jack Churchill

As the only man in WW2 with a confirmed kill from a longbow, Captain “Fighting” Jack Churchill also made sure he followed through on his position regarding swords, landing at Norway, Sicily and Yugoslavia waving his broadsword at various Axis armed forces.


That lady is Rosa Parks, in the fifties in Alabama she was riding on the bus home from her job as a seamstress. She was tired, her back, neck and shoulders ached. She chose not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, purposefully breaking the segregation laws. She was arrested, and on the day she was due in court thousands of people across the southern states boycotted the buses. Eventually her case went to the Supreme Court, segregation on the buses was ruled illegal and the civil rights movement gathered momentum.

All those people had skin in the game.

The position they took they followed through on, and would bear any losses from. It wasn’t anything theoretical they were involved with, they didn’t advocate something that they weren’t practically applying themselves in a real world setting. If a sword wasn’t good enough for Nazi-killing, then Fightin’ Jack Churchill would soon find that out to his cost.

Since civilisation began there have been rules that governed situations like this. In ancient Babylon this was enshrined in a code of law, as you can see on the photo below if you can read Babylonian cuneiform.


My Babylonian cuneiform is a little rusty these days, but if you look very carefully at the bottom left I am sure you can find the reference to Babylonian building regs.

This stone contains on it rules about buildings. If a building collapses and kills someone, then the builder is put to death.  Every Babylonian builder finishing a building was fully aware his skin was very much in the game.

In ancient Rome bridge engineers had to spend time sleeping underneath their own bridges, as a form of insurance. Their skin was literally in the game.

This principle still exists today in the maritime law that the Captain goes down with his ship, as a way of ensuring that the Captain really tries his best to avoid sinking his ship.

Nassim Taleb has written a lot about the idea of skin in the game. He says that the only people with the right to make rules and recommendations that others have to follow should have skin in the game themselves. He states that the financial crash of 2008 was partly down to financial people not having skin in the game, that they were playing games with money that other people bore the downside of.

Now think of your workplace. All the job roles where people advise or enforce actions that you have to carry out and that you or your customers have to bear any potential downside, do any of these people have skin in the game?

The answer is no. None of them do.

I should know, as I am one of them! In my recent past I have had to issue all sorts of guidelines and bollocks that if I were Babylonian, would surely have had me put to death. Target setting guidelines, service improvement templates, self assessment forms. If they were a bridge, they would have collapsed immediately  But not on top of me! As I have no skin in the game. I am a chicken, and its pigs that you need.


Keep the below table by your side, be wary of advice from people in the left column. Yes, that includes bureaucrats like me. Work with people in the middle column. Follow people in the right column.


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13 Responses to Skin in the game

  1. Maz Iqbal says:

    Just imagine if “skin in the game” was made universal. What a world that would be!


  2. ThinkPurpose says:

    Yes! No bureaucrats, no consultants….oh.


  3. joelbaileyuk says:

    Great post. Always good.


  4. bulldozer00 says:

    Very moving, inspirational.


  5. Are you asking us to be judgemental? I feel sad about that. Deffo advice to be wary of 😦

    – Bob


  6. ThinkPurpose says:

    Less a judgement more about decisions. People make decisions all the time. Do i drink tea or coffee, shall I buy the Ford or the Toyota.
    Same as judging whether to follow advice, do I buy what this fellow says, or not? Has he/she got skin in the game in this, or is it just the buyer of their ideas who would be bearing the downside?

    If you don’t make decisions, you do nothing. No, not even that, doing nothing is a decision in itself.


  7. Pingback: How to get skin in your game | thinkpurpose

  8. Pingback: Abhishek’s mam | thinkpurpose

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