Leadership and Deviance

One of the many interesting things about leading a team or an organization is that it inherently involves being a social deviant. 

Left to their own devices, most teams and organizations tend to follow the path of least resistance, with members generally figuring out what’s expected and doing that—but not much more. That would be fine if we lived in a static world, one in which change was rare. 

But we don’t. 

Change is ever-present, and our teams and organizations must continually evolve. Otherwise, they become irrelevant, even obsolete. And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all recognize those moments in which other people—leaders—have pushed us to do and become more than we thought was possible. 

Therefore, leaders must be willing to stand alone in a crowd. They have to be willing to risk at least some of their reputation; they have to push against the inevitable forces of inertia all around us. 

Those are a few reasons why leadership isn’t typical. 

Another related reason was well-articulated by a sign in the fitness center of a hotel I recently visited. It was one of those standard signs, likely written by attorneys and posted for legal reasons. It articulated the need for medical consultation prior to exercise and, among other points, the general disclaimer that my use of the equipment was at my own risk. 

In other words, don’t blame the hotel if you hurt yourself. 

Yet the last bullet point on the sign struck me for its intensity. It just seemed rather extreme. 

It read, "Do not over exercise. Discontinue use at the first signs of stress.” 


Discontinue use at the first signs of stress. Not at the second sign of stress or when your heart rate is getting a little close to red-lining. The first signs of stress. 

This struck me because I think if anyone exercising actually took that advice literally, he or she would quit every session after a few minutes. I know that a part of me always wants to quit at the first signs of stress, but pushing through those first signs of stress makes all the difference. 

I get it—the hotel doesn’t want you to get hurt and try to hold them liable. 

But then I started thinking about how our tendency to quit “at the first signs of stress” often goes well beyond the gym. There are simply so many times in which quitting is easier.

It’s easier to walk past someone doing something out of line than it is to stop and address it. 

It’s easier to “move the goal posts” on a change initiative, declaring victory according to new standards. 

It’s easier to move with the crowd than it is to move faster, slower, or change its direction. 

Leadership, because it involves being a social deviant, demands not only pushing through “the first signs of stress,” but also inspiring others to do the same. 

So by all means, don’t die in a hotel fitness center—or any fitness center, for that matter. 

But keep in mind that if the going is tough as a leader, you’re probably actually leading. It’s just part of the deal. It’s often lonely, sweaty work. So long as you believe in the value of where you’re headed, though, dig in and keep pushing—because success pretty much always exists in that space beyond the “first signs of stress.”

At least that’s been my experience. 

About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.

Ben is also the author of the e-book, The Navy’s 11: Reflections and tips for leaders everywhere based upon the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. It’s full of ...

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