“Be prepared for the loneliness of leadership. It is worse and more difficult than you may have thought it would be, for it is not a thought; it is real.”

–-- Peter Koestenbaum

On Misfits and Outcasts

Yesterday as I was writing my last post I forgot something — from the conversation I was having with a friend about her destiny. As we continued to talk, what also came out was the sense that those who honor and follow their unique paths may also have to endure considerable loneliness and a sense that they are misfits. There is no certain glory, at least not right way, in tending toward unique ideas and perspectives, or if you are in the marketplace, unique work. It may take some time for your leadership to catch fire. And all along that way, you may hold the nagging question of whether you have gone too far, are not just beyond the edge of a comfort zone but totally over it, and that there is no one now who can understand you.

It may be popular these days to celebrate the heretics — when they are successful. An individualist culture may applaud an Einstein or even as beautiful and frenetic a renegade as Abbie Hoffman of Steal This Book fame, but overall, societies do not place as much value on those at the edge as those at the center. A Jack Welch, for all his imperfections and attendant loss of stature, no doubt has had a much broader impact on how business is actually conducted in this country than say a true thought leader like Peter Senge. But, of course, what societies do and who they support is not necessarily a measure of anything except the energy of self-perpetuation. Luckily there are values that transcend human institutions and cultural norms. If those values did not exist as social forces — values such as freedom, justice, compassion, truth, integrity, democracy, humanism — regimentation and totalitarian control might soon paint our globe as the human condition. And there are different kinds of intelligence, always ready to break through at the boundaries of what is known and believed.

But this post is not about society, nor conformity really. It is about you, and the degree to which you see yourself as “different” in some important way. Koestenbaum in the book cited above exhorts people to value their misfit qualities as being the source of their leadership — what they see in themselves that makes them unique can be a great gift to the world. But he is also quite right that the path of the individual may subject a person to feelings of loneliness, and perhaps terrifyingly so. This shows up, of course, less in the successes than in the failures and blocks and challenges that naturally come along. Sometimes heretics are simply lost people, and forgotten. There is that risk.

The question is what the failures do to us, and how we move through them; whether we continue to trust in the patterns of the universe or give up and go back to trusting the patterns and norms of a current and conventional society. Many people today are frightened by the economy and there has been a generally more conservative tilt in the organizations I’ve touched. People are more careful and quieter, less willing to risk, and also sometimes it seems, less likely to think for themselves or honor their unique paths. The tilt is toward protection of what gains have been made and not to stand out. No one, after all, wants to face the loneliness of long unemployment if they don’t have to. Like Yossarian in the classic novel, Catch-22, we have been faced with the dictum, “All you have to do is like us.” Never mind what you plainly see, what’s happening, what’s actually going on.

Lt. Col. Korn, XO: [speaking to Yossarian] All you have to do is be our pal.
Colonel Cathcart: Say nice things about us.
Lt. Col. Korn, XO: Tell the folks at home what a good job we’re doing. Take our offer Yossarian.
Colonel Cathcart: Either that or a court-martial for desertion.

It’s entirely possible that once behavior changes, thoughts change to line up behind it. Get people to shift their conduct, at some point they agree with and support the conduct in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

But if you don’t resolve the cognitive dissonance, where are you? In a state of tension is where, and the issue then is what you will do with you. It’s one thing, and it’s easy to say, “Well, just think for yourself.” Have you tried it? And then did you find yourself in conflict with others? And what did you do with that conflict?

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  • Individuality, indeed, can be lonely–unless one is fortunate to discover a group of like-minded, independent thinkers as friends or colleagues. I discovered the term “shared values” while helping a management and labor specialist edit a manuscript. Whereas shared values are glue binding families, systems, and organizations, independent thinking is likewise so important. I am often the person who asks: “why?” “how?” “what else?” “could we?” This is not antagonistic questioning; it is genuine curiosity and meant to spur on others’ thinking–and mine. Some people cannot take it; they question the question. I just signed off a listserv in which one bold (loud) voice said, claiming to speak for the group but probably mainly herself: “No questions!” (Actually, she used uncivil language–that’s how strong the resistance–and I got the point.) In my own life, I find that the burden (opportunity) of adaptation is often on the highly creative person. Some people have been conditioned to not think outside the box; that’s ok. That’s right for them. But some of us, by training or temperament, must also heed the truth of our fingerprint — uniqueness of insight or outlook — to be true to ourselves. “Love the questions themselves,” Rilke advised.

  • Maria, thank you for writing. This is the dilemma, isn’t it, that to hold to one’s “fingerprint” can result also at times in tension, alienation (at least temporary), and misunderstanding. The challenge is to remain open, to hear about one’s impact and not shut off the flow while also holding to one’s path. I believe if we do this right we offer an invitation to others and remain solid ourselves. And isn’t it so that in the end that’s the most that can be offered really, an invitation?

  • I suspect that the higher valuation of people at the center vs. people at the edge is part of what defines a society (or a community), which is why conformity is typically rewarded and challenges are often punished, whether it be a religious, political, business or military community.

    I recently encountered a reference to System Justification Theory that may help explain (or at least label) this phenomenon. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

    System justification theory (SJT) is a scientific theory within social psychology that proposes people have a motivation to defend and bolster the status quo, that is, to see it as good, legitimate, and desirable.

    According to system justification theory, people not only want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and their own groups (group-justification), but they also want to hold favorable attitudes about the overarching social order (system-justification). A consequence of this tendency is that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives to the status quo are disparaged.

    I also recently encountered an article on Solitude and Leadership: “If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts”. The lecture, delivered by William Deresiewicz to West Point “plebes”, describes – and warns against – “world class hoop jumpers”, “excellent sheep” and “people who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to”. Instead, Deresiewicz makes a compelling case for courage, conviction, concentration, introspection and intimate conversation – and the solitude these require – as the essential elements of effective leadership. It is the most inspiring essay I’ve read in a long time … er, aside from posts on this blog, of course.

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