I have studied leadership for many years, and can’t count how many books I have collected on the topic. I keep learning new things about how to be an effective, impactful, and influential leader.
You may be familiar with some of the models: transformational leadership, situational leadership, behavioral leadership, servant leadership, and so on.
The term “leadership” is becoming a lot like the word love! You know, we love chocolate and we love our mothers. But one we have affection for, and the other we crave. Big difference, right!?
Similarly, Leadership has lost its meaning because everyone can be a leader, either by having the title or by assuming the role. Studies show that 8 out of 10 Americans consider themselves leaders, or at least aspire to be. It makes me wonder who is following all of those leaders!
We all know from personal experience that some leaders are better than others. We also know that Leadership is something that can fall to neglect. Without a commitment to continue to improve and grow, leadership can lose its impact and influence.
While we may retain the title of leader, we may lose relevance and the power to change things if we put our leadership into autopilot. When we aren’t intentional about our leadership, we can actually cause a lot of damage.
It’s important to focus on who you are as a leader.
Leadership is a stewardship, a responsibility bestowed on us by followers, and we’d better take it seriously.
A challenge that we have in our organizations and our communities is that we tend to focus on problems. We look for where things are broken and we work to fix things. We also tend to be reactive, putting out fires and placing band aids on the symptoms. Oftentimes we have a deficit mindset, which leads to pessimistic and negative thinking.
The word proactive is well-used in our workplaces. It’s a good word, meaning that we act before things go awry, before its too late. The opposite, of course, is reactive, which means that we have already experienced a downturn, an opportunity has been missed, or we are off target. So we try to become proactive, hopefully avoiding the need to react to a crisis.
But there is something even more powerful than being proactive – it’s called positive deviance.
The word deviance comes from two Latin words: de, meaning out of; and via, meaning the way. So you have this idea that the deviant has ventured away from the normal path, most likely to pursue something sinister. But the positive deviant has gone off the beaten path to create a new way, a positive path.
The positive deviant is unorthodox, driven by a passion to make a difference, a compulsion to improve things, to grow and develop. What I want to leave you with tonight is three principles of positively deviant leadership.
The first principle is this: positively deviant leaders imagine better.
They see where things are and they envision something better. They look around them and they aren’t satisfied with what they see. They know it doesn’t have to stay like this, and they believe they have the ability to venture in a new direction.
Do you remember Popeye the Sailor Man? I know he’s in the wrong branch of the armed forces for some of you!
Do you remember when Olive Oyl was being bullied by Brutus and Popeye came along? He got steaming mad, and said “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands it no more!” He gobbled down his spinach and kicked Brutus’s butt!
Positive deviants are the same way! It may be an injustice, it may be a missed opportunity, it may be a better, more life-giving, more enriching way to do something. But they can no longer follow the status quo. They have to do something. And they are willing to step off the path to make it happen. This first principle has to do with attitude and seeing what could be if they stepped up and did something about it.
Positive deviants are all around us. They are the ones who choose to make a way where there seems to be no way. They take the same resources as everyone else has and they use them differently, and they find a way to thrive right next to the fire-fighters, right beside the maintainers of the status quo.
The second principle of positive deviance is this: positive deviants enlist co-conspirators. They Inspire through partnership.
Positive Deviants may initially venture out alone- they may start out as the rock in the middle of the stream around which the current is swirling. They do the research or covertly initiate their plan, but they know that change happens in community, in the social context. Positive leaders begin building a coalition.
They begin looking for others who are looking for a new path, those who see the need to change but may need a little prompting-they need to see some proof that change is possible. That’s where the positive deviants’ pre-work comes in handy. They have something to show that persuades others to come along.
Jerry and Monique Sternin worked for Save the Children. After the war in Vietnam, they were deployed to address the issue of malnutrition that was pervasive throughout Vietnam. It was great while the NGOs were there to distribute rice and nutrition packets, but when a particular program ended, meaning that there was no more food to distribute, malnutrition returned as before. The challenge before the Sternin’s was whether a sustainable nutrition program could be put into place.
It’s a fascinating story, which you can read for yourself in their book, but I want to focus on how they built a coalition to eradicate malnutrition in post-war Vietnam. With a mandate to fix a huge problem in a very short amount of time, the Sternin’s went on a hunt for positive deviants and discovered that among the poorest of the poor families, some children were nourished even though they had the same resource as their neighbors.
Once the Sternin’s and the local leaders that they had partnered with discovered what the positively deviant families were doing differently, which turned out to be adding a few bits of shrimp & crab, and a handful of greens to the regular serving of broth, they had to take what these few were doing to transform the community through collaboration. The point is this: the Sternin’s could not do it alone.
Consider how your network can move your community or your organization toward something that no single person is capable of. What path is awaiting you as a group of positively deviant leaders?
So the second characteristic has to do with relationships and building critical mass that leads to positive change.
The third and final characteristic I want to leave with you is this: positively deviant leaders are forward thinking.
The reality is that what is emerging for the next 20 years doesn’t look like the last 20 years. It’s already become a cliche that the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself! We know that the pace of society, the pace of business, is getting Faster and faster.
But our communitIes are becoming more global. Our competition is not just the business down the street, but the business in Bangalore, the organization in Bogota. So as positive deviants we must anticipate and be able to maneuver at a fast pace.
I heard recently that at least 20 percent of the jobs that will be needed in the next fifteen years don’t even exist today. Between a flattening world and rapid advances in technology, we’re in for an upheaval in how work gets done and who does it, and also the types of products and services that are required. This reality requires a different way of thinking if our communities are going to thrive into the future.
Positive deviants are watchers of the horizon. And they become prophets of future trends and seers of what is to be. Positive deviants energize innovative thinking. They build a strategy to forge a new path…a positive path for the future.
There is so much more to positive deviance. The interesting thing is that it has worked as a mindset and approach at the community development level and healthcare, but the marketplace has been slow to embrace it because we are committed to problem solving and a deficit mindset.
It’s not a panacea – you still have to address problems and evaluate gaps.
To me, the important thing about positively deviant leadership is that it can help us think about our communities and workplaces differently. Positively deviant leadership shifts the frame through which we view challenges and opportunities.
The questions we ask about what is happening around us shapes the kinds of answers we will hear. Positively deviant leaders look for signs of life and hope and fan the flames of possibility instead of looking for systems and programs on life support in an effort to keep them artificially alive.
Consider a positive deviance approach. Think about how you can imagine better and challenge the status quo, build a coalition that moves the group toward life-giving initiatives, and see into the future to create a community, an organization, and a life that builds on strengths and assets.