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If you’ve read any of my writing, you know I am a bit of a staunch non-conformist. I simply don’t see the use in conforming to things that A) don’t make sense, B) are only valued because they are popular, and C) “because that’s how it’s always been done.” Some glaring examples I’ve written about include the work we do and the education we receive. I believe that conformity to anything regarding A, B, or C is nothing but a one-way ticket to mediocrity. But there is one exception. And only one.
As a leader of employees and a mentor to students, I’ve always enjoyed when those I worked with were fired up and ready to achieve a common goal together. Those who were motivated by the team’s success, or a purpose larger than themselves—those were the people I wanted on my team. But a non-conformist is one who, by definition, alienates themselves from the crowd, and you can’t have a successful team made up of a bunch of non-conformists. Something has to give.
I stand firmly at the intersection of nonconformity and leadership, so you can see my obvious conundrum. On one hand, I encourage people to be the most authentic version of themselves, regardless of what other people may want them to be. On the other hand, having been on the other side of the fence as a leader, I’ve learned the value of having those authentic individuals come together and conform to the group’s mission. And the key word is mission.
Mission is the mortar between the bricks of a successful organization.
To illustrate this, during high school, I never felt like I was a good fit for any job I had. I was a sub-standard employee as a teenager. When I worked at a supermarket, I often quickly became bored of pushing carts, scanning items, and stocking shelves. I always did my job, but never to the best of my abilities. While I knew someone had to do it, I didn’t think that “someone” should have been me. The problem wasn’t that I lacked willpower and capability. The problem was that my ambition always seemed to outstrip my position. What was I missing? What would it take for me to conform?
And before you say supermarkets don’t have an inherent mission, think again. They wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t have a mission. What they lack is leadership who can convey the mission in compelling terms.
Ideally, the more subordinates in an organization who think like an owner, the better off the team will be. However, those types of employees are few and far between. Therefore, the job of the leader is to 1) build quality relationships, 2) cultivate meaningful empathy, and 3) paint a compelling and sharp vision for the future. It is on you as the leader to persuade your people to buy in to the mission. If it is a worthwhile mission that benefits both the individual and the organization, the easier it will be to sell. The ones who buy in and conform are the ones who belong on the team. The ones who don’t should be shown the door. It’s as simple as that.
I often think about how out of touch my bosses were when I was a young employee. They never quite caught on to my disengaged mindset. They never took the time to connect with their employees. And they never made the effort to sell the mission. Everything was about their “bottom line.” And because the mission was never conveyed clearly, the employees all did the bare minimum, and the boss’ precious bottom line suffered as a result.
The more you think about leadership and conformity, the more you realize how indispensable they truly are to each other. Show me conformity without leadership, and I’ll show you a bunch of middle school kids. Show me leadership without conformity and that’s what is called a mutiny. But leadership and conformity don’t just naturally work together—they must be bonded to each other tightly like mortar between bricks. Meaning is the flywheel that makes the world turn, and it’s critical for leaders to understand this concept. Humans want meaning in their work and lives, and if they can’t find it, they either resign themselves to misery, or become non-conformists. And for those people, there is only one excuse for conformity, and that is a clear, compelling, and collective mission.
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