When I was eleven years old, the Partridge Family was a staple of my Friday night television viewing and one Miss Laurie Partridge seemed to be just about the coolest a girl could be. The long silky middle parted hair, the groovy (yes, I said it, groovy) clothes, and the fact that she wailed on the Hammond organ. The organ…apparently the staple of family bands in the 1970s.
It’s no wonder I started peppering my wardrobe with bell bottom pants and puffy shirts, but the hair was a different story. I was never going to be blessed with Laurie Partridge hair no matter how many tubes of VO-5 gel I greased into it, so I decided unequivocally that I needed to turn to the next best thing. I needed to play the organ.
Yeah, that’s the ticket.
The trouble was, The Del Ray school of music didn’t offer organ lessons. Which is how I began my short lived journey as a 5th grade accordion player.
Day after day, I would sit in my room trying to squeeze air into that thing with my spindly 11 year old arms, producing painful versions of those classic hits, “Fast Train” and “I Wish I Were Single Again.”
The cat eyed glasses and the butchered, pixie haircut I had decided to give myself weren’t enough to make me painfully standout from the pack of cool kids in school. I had to throw accordion player on top of it just to make sure every one knew that “something in this picture isn’t like the rest.”
And so began my life long journey of being a square peg not giving a crap about trying to fit into a round hole.
As the cool 1970s flowed into the corporate 1980s and my days of playing the accordion transformed into days of doing strategic plans at an ad agency, I was continually pummeled by the realization that non-conformity isn’t always a blessing in big organizations.
It didn’t matter. If I tried to push it down, to blend in, to, dare I say, conform, the charade would be discovered the first time I opened my mouth.
How, then, did I not only survive, but flourish, as a square peg living in a proverbially round hole?
After a really rocky decade or so, I finally figured it out.
First, I learned that if you wanted to deviate from the norm, you couldn’t be mediocre. You had to kill it…..sort of like I did on my “Fast Train” solo at the Del Ray school of music…. You weren’t there, you don’t know.
Mediocre and non-conformist don’t go together. You have to know your stuff inside and out.
Next, you have to become adept at channeling all of that passion that non-conformists invariably possess in constructive ways.
For me, a strong example was the solution to a stressed out workforce falling into a comfortable and efficient, but not particularly innovative, routine. And so, I introduced “The Deviant Award” which encouraged anyone to nominate any teammate or boss for random acts of deviance.
The mere act of being on the lookout for people doing things, big or small, that went beyond the same old, same old, flipped a switch on the team. People not only started noticing where things needed to change, they made recommendations for the changes, and put many into action.
Complacency was replaced with vigor and innovation. Teamwork and collaboration increased.
And finally, value the round hole.
My early inclinations were just to push and push against the conformity. When I understood its value, I began to work with it, not in it but with it, rather than against it.
The concept behind the Deviant Award was, in itself, a conformist concept. I borrowed heavily from the social psychology idea of Social Proof, or watching what others are doing and modelling our behavior after it.
By watching other people and noticing their acts of deviance, it created a ripple effect of one person after another copying the behavior of deviating from routine in positive ways. Ultimately, creating an innovative minded team.
The marriage of the square peg and the round hole. An equal partnership.
How do you channel your inner square peg to develop a leadership style that is unique and effective?