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:
- Make the tough calls no matter how unpopular those decisions may be
- Hold people accountable so poor performance doesn’t fritter away potential
- Pursue change knowing it is the path to ongoing relevance
- Encourage purposeful discomfort in pursuit of personal and organizational growth
- Ask the uncomfortable questions to ferret out the best solution and minimize bias
- 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
- 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.