The pressure to conform is tremendous. It starts before we can walk.
See what your brother is doing? He’s doing a good job. Be like him.
As Yusuf Islam, better known by his former stage name of Cat Stevens, once sang, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.”
And that’s just at home. We then, very quickly, enter the world of organizations, in which the mantra of conformity resounds even louder. As early as preschool, the powers that be tell us:
Stand in line.
Don’t poke your friends.
Wait your turn.
This is how we sit, stand, eat, play, learn.
This is how we get along. This is what’s acceptable; this is what’s not.
The message is so pervasive that it’s subtle. It’s blindly accepted. We’re taught how to conform, and we’re rewarded for doing so. Deviate from the rules at your own risk.
Without such conformity and social pressure, to be sure, life would be chaos. I have four young children, and you can bet I want them to listen and not throw golf balls at each other’s heads.
Yet we shouldn’t be surprised at all when such a bias for conformity infuses our organizations through the mindsets of our employees.
It’s not surprising at all that most of us, most of the time, do what we can to fit in and get along.
Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that people seldom lead—because leadership itself is about being a positive social deviant.
When the crowd plods ahead in mediocrity, leaders set high standards, create new visions of the future, and inspire new directions.
When the group convinces itself about the certainty of a particular course of action, leaders stand alone and reveal potential pitfalls. They point out the absurdity of taken-for-granted assumptions about the way things have been done in the past, about the way we sometimes think the world works.
And so, I say, long live the organizational heretic!
Here’s to those who make us uncomfortable, just when we think we have it figured out.
Here’s to those who question the value in pursuing failing objectives, especially in the face of significant sunk costs.
Here’s to those who, in the words of Gary Hamel, “challenge management dogma.”
All of us, particularly if we hold a position of authority, would be well served by considering how we treat the organizational heretics—those people who challenge the status quo—when they speak or act as positive social deviants.
And we would be well served by having the courage to sometimes being organizational heretics ourselves--as would those whom we lead in the process.
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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.