7 Things Leaders Can Do to be Refreshingly Different

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Development
7 Things Leaders Can Do to be Refreshingly Different

A few weeks ago I was jamming to the radio while traveling to a meeting. Paused at a stoplight, I glanced at the car to my right. The driver met my eyes, shook his head, and made the cuckoo gesture. I smiled and kept on singing.

Had this situation occurred early on in my personal journey, I would have responded very differently. Feeling silly, self-conscious, and embarrassed, I would have prayed for the red light to be short. Social convention—the law of opinion as philosopher John Locke calls it—says that “normal” people don’t behave that way.  Back then, I would have stopped singing immediately because, as Locke puts it, the “threat of condemnation or disgrace from one’s fellows is a powerful motivation.” For most of us, being in situations where we are isolated, don’t fit in, or face reprisals isn’t much fun.

The pressure to conform and the desire to belong are enormous, and together they can influence our actions. Solomon Asch conducted research in which “subjects were asked to match lines of different lengths on two cards. In this experiment, there was one obvious right answer. However, each subject was tested in a room full of ‘planted’ peers who deliberately gave the wrong answer in some cases. About three-fourths of the subjects tested knowingly gave an incorrect answer at least once in order to conform to the group.”

Other times, we may do something even more harmful than changing an answer. When our point of view, opinion, or preference is in opposition to what the majority thinks, we sometimes choose to remain silent. Political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls this behavior the spiral of silence. This spiral is especially potent when our opinions have a moral component—that’s us trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.

As leaders, we may not enjoy being isolated or not fitting in, yet we don’t hesitate to go there. Leaders marshal the courage to stand alone. Leaders don’t allow themselves to be deterred from doing what’s right by the fear of being alone or not being liked. Leaders don’t fall victim to the spiral of silence. They:

  1. Make the tough calls no matter how unpopular those decisions may be
  2. Hold people accountable so poor performance doesn’t fritter away potential
  3. Pursue change knowing it is the path to ongoing relevance
  4. Encourage purposeful discomfort in pursuit of personal and organizational growth
  5. Ask the uncomfortable questions to ferret out the best solution and minimize bias
  6. Ensure there is diversity not only of sex, race, and age but also of thought, opinion, and perspective so people can appreciate both sides of the bigger picture
  7. Are self-aware, perpetually seeking to understand themselves to better understand others

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. ~Audre Lorde, poet and activist

Effective leadership is delivering both results and relationships, which sometimes requires putting ourselves in the lonely but necessary place of speaking and acting differently. We choose to march to the different drummer…or sing our hearts out while behind the wheel.

What’s been one of the most troubling things you’ve seen happen when people choose to conform rather than break the spiral of silence?
Photo Credit: Dreamstime

About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
I’m a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. Love chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John Smith  |  10 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Jane – another excellent post, full of interesting observations and a bit of challenge:)

My nomination for Best Understatement: “For most of us, being in situations where we are isolated, don’t fit in, or face reprisals isn’t much fun.”

I am familiar with Asch’s experiment and have seen evidence to support this throughout my work life. The “Smoke-Filled Room” study, in which a room slowly filled with smoke, produced similar results: With some people planted in the room to ignore the slowly gathering smoke, those not in on the experiment were confused and hesitated, as that smoke continued to get thicker. Here’s a link to a YouTube video that shows how powerful the inaction of others can be on our own behavior and decisions:

Interestingly, as the number of people in the room grows, so does the effect of “bystander apathy”. This study also contributes to our understanding of why people often observe, but do not act to help others. The bigger the crowd of witnesses, the less likely most are to act. Not a great commentary on our shared humanity.

I was not aware of the “spiral of silence” specifically, but I am now – thanks:)

About your question, I once experienced this on a corporate scale, where leadership was poor and counterproductive, but senior management team folks (including me) remained silent for the most part. Over a number of years, this contributed to several things:

1) The leader continued to feel empowered and supported by our silence. As someone has probably said, “Silence is Assent”.

2) The culture became one where the poor decisions and behaviors of the leader were accepted as either “normal” or “personality quirks” (ignoring the very real effects on our productivity and even viability.

3) When confrontation did occur, it was usually in emotional response to some specific event. The emotion drove behavior, which did not result in effective communication or relation, while the resulting “discussion” would focus on nitpicking or rationalizing the specific event, while the overall direction remained unchanged.

The result: A bankruptcy which changed our company from one with a proud 100-plus year history, over 100 facilities and programs nationwide, and over 3, 000 employees to one with 5 facilities and 300 employees in three states.

Not particularly enjoying this trip down Memory Lane, but I take it as often as I need to remind myself that speaking out is better than keeping it in.

I deeply appreciate your post reinforcing that leadership is about speaking the truth, even when risk accompanies that truth.


Jane Perdue  |  08 Jun 2016  |  Reply

Hi, John —

Love that you took the uncomfortable walk down memory lane to share a very apt story. Great video…thanks for sharing the link!

Speaking truth to power* is so important yet so hard to do, Fear, apathy, peer pressure and so many other negatives come into play. Here’s to having the moral courage to do the right thing!

With a smile,


*only recently did I learn that it was the Quakers who originated that phrase, a factoid I find fascinating for some reason *smile*

John Smith  |  10 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Jane …

BTW, I “bop” in the car too and do not care what others think. As a matter of fact, I have found that car-bopping to some catchy tune (especially Boomer Rock N’ Roll classics) is the perfect response to slow or non-moving traffic, bottlenecks, or just city driving in general:)


Jane Perdue  |  08 Jun 2016  |  Reply

Love that you are a fellow “bopper!”

Duncan M.  |  10 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Interesting article Jane. Unfortunately, our desire to be part of the group leads us to poor decisions. It is not a good idea to approve something that you do not agree just because your opinion may not be popular. This behaviour can lead to frustration, and in the long term to lack of motivation. As a leader, it is important not only to speak your mind but also to encourage others to do the same.

Jane Perdue  |  08 Jun 2016  |  Reply

You are sooooooooooo right, Duncan, about the importance of encouraging others, in addition to ourselves, to have the moral courage to speak up, even if it’s unpopular to do so. Thanks for sharing and my apologies for the delay in responding.

Scott Mabry  |  10 Mar 2016  |  Reply

There is great pressure to conform to a “standard of leadership” depending on the context and often defined by the leader at the top. To stand apart and follow one’s own heart and path is the road less travelled, but that can make all the difference. Thank you for the encouraging and inspiring message, Jane.

Jane Perdue  |  08 Jun 2016  |  Reply

Good, no great, point, Scott, about the pressure of conformity and having the courage to travel the road less taken. Your comment prompted me to take a walk down memory lane, remembering sadly a company where I worked. There groupthink prevailed…to go against whatever the boss said was career suicide. Ugh, gotta shake off the bad memories! Appreciate your comments, Scott, and my apologies for the too long delay in responding.

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