Meditations on Non-Conformity
The tragedy of this world is not change, nor death. Change is inevitable; even death is desirable in some instances. The tragedy of this world is a particular variety of conservatism that dictates that anything or anyone different ought to be shunned. This obstruction of energy happens to people, to innovation, be it personal, scientific, cultural or even business transformation. Whatever or whoever does not conform tends to frighten the ordinary sensibility and shake the foundations of the establishment. We need more of this, not less.
You'd think this would not be the case in our modern world, especially where I live in Silicon Valley, but I can assure you that it is prevalent.
The painting you see above is entitled Perimeter.
It was painted by a man named Jack Sonenburg, who was my mentor in my twenties for a very brief period of time when I wanted to be an artist in New York. This was right after failing to get into Medical School, spending a few months studying acting, before wanting to be an attorney and ended up becoming a garden-variety investment analyst.
I was driving Jack and a truckload of his paintings from Boston to Brooklyn on Easter Weekend 1995. Jack's wife has just died. He was tired, and he didn't have much to say. I stupidly tried to cheer him up and asked him about being an artist, if it was hard to be on the outside all the time. I had grown up in a very conservative catholic, Marine Corps home and always was worried about breaking out or fitting in.
Here's what Jack had to say.
The artist doesn't "fit in".
You know who fits in? No one. No one actually fits in. People force themselves to, because, you know, you are supposed to fit in. Ever notice how they organize workspaces into these cubicles nowadays? Reminds me of holding pens in Iowa where I grew up. Sheep, farm animals, livestock fit in, all stuffed in there, where they herd them, usually before they get sent down the shoots to the abattoir or butcher, on their intrepid journey to our plates. Sad stuff fitting in is.
I suggest going the opposite direction of the herd. It might not always be fun, but you'll at least be free.
The point is that you must be yourself before you can do anything of any real worth. When you are twenty-five and a respected artist describes your fellow humans as herd animals, you tend to make a mental not of it. I asked myself that question twenties years ago and have asked again, many times since.
If you find yourself a little too long in a gig you despise, or a little too eager to box yourself in, or queue yourself up, you ought to give Jack's question some serious thought. Jack taught me not to be herdable. I encourage others to also be themselves, unabashedly. It does not sound like very much, but I assure you that as you trudge your way through the parking lot and make your way to your cubicle, the thought itself may very well be the flicker of the revolutionary spirit.
A good leader will tell you, "It's okay to be yourself. It's okay to be different." But then later, they might say, "Ok now tone that bit down a touch, huh?"
The courageous, supportive leader goes further and says, "I want your real opinion", and then makes room for it. In modern corporate life, that is revolutionary behavior, and, unfortunately, it is rare.
I'm afraid that we are not quite as outside the cubicle as we may think we are, yet.
Imagine, if you will, a more dynamic model of leadership. Imagine we lived in a world where the dominant economic reality was also transpersonal. One in which creative, engaged and empathic leadership is the norm and not the exception. In this greater, archetypal realm of existence (that includes economics), creative leadership grants permission for more, not less humanity. Such an environment would allow for fallible human errors to be integrated parts of the whole. Indeed, the natural anomalies of creativity could provide the very starting points for new ideas concepts and products.
There is a problem with entirely commercial and, therefore, conventional ways of leading in business. We have finally begun to realize that with all of the noise, the hustle and bustle of transactional reality, (otherwise known as consumerism) comes with an inherent banality. Consumerism can ever be an actual catalyst for true self-worth or interest.
You cannot buy yourself a "self ". You cannot put yourself on "hold". You cannot put other people on hold, while you figure out whether or not you are up or down, out or in.
"Buying something" cannot make a person more of a person, or create meaning or anything any more than exchanging a shell for a bead attributes value to either object. However, we do derive actual value in the transactional, real economy from the material of our efforts. As such, it's only natural to expect that individuals help other individuals derive meaning in that context. We can and should help one another to be more productive by being more open, more fluid and more transparent. We can help one another by being more real with one another.
Put aside the clichés for a moment-- the modern heroes- Zuckerberg, Branson, Jobs and such- and consider that the anomaly of the dynamic creative leader is a needed buffer to the complete standardization and robotization of work that corporate life encourages. We need creative leaders to remind us of the value of non-conformity—or even what it is--to break us out of the propaganda of the normative mode where anything or anyone that doesn't ascribe to the economic reality is considered alien or dangerous.
Creative leaders don't "sell out or buy-in." They agree to participate in the experiment at hand and involve the organization in it. In particular, if we want millennials to be better leaders, we have to get them passionate about what leadership is, where it comes from and how to do it. To think that somehow an Ivy League MBA or capturing an A-round of funding conveys this automatically is a misconception of what leadership requires from the individual.
Inspired leadership requires that you be YOU.
I do not believe it will surprise most of you when I tell you that a great deal of research shows us that organizations are inflexible because there is too little communication in the company; often people and groups are too siloed. I have fought this battle most of my adult career in advertising agencies where the impractical separation of practice areas is almost endemic until only recently. In most of the holding company owned organizations I have personally worked—the majority of staff were disengaged and unhappy because of this.
Three priorities require people to think differently about the role of leadership. The first priority is how to run an organization that can respond to complexity, because the world is getting more complicated every day. The second is how to run organizations that are adaptable and resilient to these change, and the top priority is how to promote creativity in organizations, because organizational culture, by design and definition is mostly boring.
Everyone from the C-suite down to the managers should learn to lead with a much more transparent, visible and accountable style of distributed and active management. Leadership can be more responsive; more dynamic. People at all levels will have much more discretion and freedom to take risks—and do so with much more collaboration, communication, and cooperation. Rather than the old command and control management that went out of style with bell-bottoms, leaders can encourage innovation and creativity by tapping into the peoples’ often stifled creative impulses.
If you want a way to boost morale immediately—simply help foster the greater expression of creativity and transparency. Contrary to what we may think, the actual role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas and "run the show"; it's to create an atmosphere where people can thrive in a very human and real way, instead of turning their selves "on" and "off" for work.
Cultivating authenticity and creativity in the workplace is not arbitrary. Leaders can and should insist that original ideas have actual value, workflows, and processes that support generating and executing them. Organizational problems and extreme financial pressure make being creative more urgent, so being creative in business terms isn't some recreational pursuit, of just another mode of keeping the troops happy.
Cultivate the real self and let go of the false one.
Louis D. LoPraeste is a former corporate strategist (2003-2012) and founder of www.quodfatum.com.