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 this week, “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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6.  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.

7.  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.”

8.  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!

9.  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.

10. 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.”


  1. Kim Olson
    March 21, 2014

    This is a good article, but I it’s missing a point. Your article, while it started on a promising note, seems to define more reasons to conform than to not. As an artist and creative thinker and one who often works to bring out the creative impulses in others – from education to business – I hear regularly that conformity in and around the workplace in our culture is often fear based. People are afraid to express opinions and ideas that may be ridiculed, outshine the boss or group, lead into uncharted territory where there is no quantifiable immediate answer.

    The fact that this untapped potential is lost and employees and individuals are not often encouraged to think outside the box affects our ability as a culture and economy to continue to press forward into new frontiers of thought and invention. Luckily, post Boomer generations of leaders and entrepreneurs are wise to the fact that ingenuity and risk taking will form their future. Your article may speak well to those in very conventional settings… but there is a new world of business out there (from online commerce, think engines like Google to the local cafe) that will thrive in unique visions and their ability to implement them.

    Thank you for the article.

  2. Lindsay
    February 22, 2018


    Thank you for your question. The best outcome would be for you to find an organization that embraces a “different” culture that you could work with. Alternatively, be able to find something you are passionate about that you are willing to work with the organizational set-up, and save your more ‘different’ lifestyle for your personal time.

    All the best!

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