Non-Conformists as Leaders

Dear Friends,

This is the weirdest and most unusual election for president that I have seen. Here we have the front running republican nominee leading the most successful entertainment show in the media, ticking everyone off who does not support him, while gaining power and strength every time people are angry with him. On the democratic side you have a socialist who is soaring with the eagles on radical and revolutionary ideas, without much grounding in reality.

This presidential election provides us with a unique perspective on leadership. Most of the time our elected leaders lead from the middle, testing the waters, taking polls, being cautious while giving the impression that they are innovative. This election the leading nominees are being anything but cautious. Instead, they have chosen to freely share their opinions and watch how the people respond. No-holds-barred. The top candidates are picking up on the peoples’ dissatisfaction with what was and what is in America. Bernie Sanders is painting a vision of the future focused on how we can make our country and the world a better place. Donald Trump’s platform highlights what is wrong with America and why this country is going to the dogs. Both of these presidential hopefuls are in touch with constituencies who have felt abandoned, disenfranchised and alone.

There is something to be said about this leadership style. From my experience leading groups and organizations there are times to be cautious and careful, and there are times where you have to follow your instincts and your values. When leading organizations and people it is important to listen to what your people are saying and not be afraid to move in unconventional ways. We don’t know what is going to happen in the months ahead with either of these candidates, but in the meantime, it is interesting to see how Bernie Sanders has touched a tremendous cord in young people seeking a vision for a better world and Donald Trump has planted the seeds discontent within the disenfranchised working class people.

A while back we had written a Rich Tip that walks through some of the considerations that come with non-conformist leadership. I think it is helpful to assess why our presidential candidates have approached running the way they have, and to ask ourselves if their non-conformist strategies provide us with examples of good leadership.




Non-conformists as Leaders

Do you ever feel that your best work gets done when you “color outside the lines?”

We have long promoted the element of leadership that involves taking risk, moving to the edge of where you feel safe and knowing that your comfort zone isn’t likely to be the place where significant progress happens.

Conformity can be defined as staying within the defined, allowed, or traditionally possible. Non-conformists willingly cross the lines. The Wall Street Journal posted a video article on their web site, “Does being a non-conformist pay off?” Theirs is a career and social perspective, for the most part; we offer our own considerations.

  1. Part of the risk of being a non-conformist is that you could get branded or simply known for being different. In other words, the focus on your style or appearance or approach can mean that your far more important talents are overlooked or eclipsed.
  1. A danger of non-conformity is that you may come across as being an individual who does not understand the dynamics of a group setting, or, worse, you understand the prevailing conventions or “rules” but do not respect them. Depending on the work you’re doing in a given community, your perceived or real lack of conformity to convention can derail everything, even if your intentions are genuine.
  1. Another element of non-conformity is that some people choose to present themselves differently just to draw attention to themselves. The obvious example may be young people who look different-they may be truly deep thinkers or they may just be crying out for someone to notice and care about them. True or not, fair or not, strangers can’t know your motives and may likely dismiss you as a result.
  1. There is a contrarian element to being the oddball, too-the goal of “being different for the sake of being different.” This may mean that a person’s position is less about the pursuit toward a genuine goal but more defined by what it is not. The danger here, of course, is that some non-conformists just seek to resist a prevailing idea. Is opposition, in and of itself, a form of leadership? The American civil rights movement would suggest that it can be.
  1. On the other hand, a stronger argument of true leadership could require that the person standing in opposition to something is also ready to articulate a better solution. For an example of this, consider the political discourse around the Affordable Care Act.
  1.  Non-conformists are not all troublemakers. In an organizational setting, standing out from the crowd can shine a light on your unique talents and creativity, and can showcase your confidence.
  1.  Sometimes being different in a traditional hierarchy can be sign that you are exceptionally valued, i.e., “That person must really be stellar in order to be allowed to behave/look that way.”
  1.  Remember that even if you are an expert or the most accomplished person in the room, it doesn’t automatically mean that you have to stand out or distinguish yourself by being the most vocal. It is about trusting yourself and about confidence. The real top dog doesn’t have to do all the barking!
  1. Perhaps the real value in this discussion is that we spend too much time worrying about “being the same” or “being different” when our attentions would better be served with doing good. Conformity is not universally discouraged, after all; there’s no harm in conforming to a positive standard; real change occurs in resisting a negative one.
  1. The nonprofit sector is filled with stories of non-conformists who accomplished good for the world. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Here in Denver, our own Denver Post has long had as its editorial page masthead, “There is no hope for the satisfied man.”