Fifty good people in a bureaucracy of a thousand can make an incredible difference --- not by being managers and ordering others around, but by being leaders. The five percent show everybody else how to behave through the examples they set. They carry forward the traditions of the outfit. They demonstrate caring, collegial spirit, teamwork, and collaboration. Most importantly, they recruit and teach the next generation of leaders to replace themselves, so that the whole enterprise continues to thrive.
A leavening of ~5% is the fraction typically needed for this job, though in a robust and healthy environment 1%-2% might be enough. If an organization is profoundly dysfunctional, on the other hand, 10%-20% or even more could be required. The order-of-magnitude figure comes out of human tribal psychology: people work best in groups of a few dozen, and that's the effective radius of influence of a local activist. Moreover, it tends to take at least few years to get competent at any worthwhile mission, and turnover of a few percent per year again suggests a ~5% critical density.
People don't sign up to be members of the five percent crew. In fact, most of those playing the part don't even realize what they're doing. They're just happy, creative, energetic folks who love their work and share their enthusiasm with their neighbors. But if the culture doesn't appreciate and encourage their spirit, the ~5% will drift away and the entire machine will grind to a halt.
The ~5% effect also applies to communities, towns, states, and even to societies writ large. Look at the historic decline and fall of some countries (or at the seemingly perpetual stagnation in others) and contrast that with the productivity that humans demonstrate they can achieve in better circumstances. There's a critical concentration of fissionable isotope needed for any chain reaction to persist. The same holds for civilizations.
Sunday, February 06, 2000 at 08:00:34 (EST) = Datetag20000206