A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials: The ABC’s of Leadership: Q is for Quirky

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique, just like everyone else.”  Margaret Mead

In my experience, quirkiness defines one’s uniqueness. I have also found that those who wear their quirkiness on their sleeve usually have great passion, are disrupters, unconventional thinkers, non-conformists and wonderful teachers.  Quirky is a characteristic that people generally don’t readily embrace. Perhaps this is because most associate being quirky with being weird and/or eccentric.  At an early age, when I was the President of Student Government at St. Clair College of Applied Arts and Technology in Windsor Ontario, I learned that one’s quirkiness can be an effective and powerful leadership attribute; and I proudly accept and accentuate my quirkiness and encourage others to embrace theirs.

Dr. Q, also known as just Q, was Richard C. Quittenton, who was the President of the College. He became my coach, mentor and hero.  Dr. Q, who passed away in 2012, was well named, as he was quirky in spades. He was a total non-conformist who taught us to challenge conventional wisdom; and took some pretty extreme positions to generate out of the box thinking and to being disruptive. Q was a professional engineer by education and profession, but his true genius was his approach to education. For example, he wrote a book, ‘An Engineering Origin of God’, because he was troubled by what he read in the Bible.

Q forced students to engage in what I refer to as the five D’s of emotional intelligence: Discuss – Disagree – Debate – Defend – Defy.  He taught through example; for example, when there was a North American auto slump, with the Japanese automakers taking a huge chunk market share, he led a ‘Buy Canadian’ movement which had a tag line in Windsor, being a car town – ‘Buy a car that is built by your neighbour’. When, during one of our weekly meetings he asked me what I thought, I politely demurred, by indicating I was not sure, to which he chastised me by calling my response “a cop out”. This emboldened me to indicate that a ‘Buy Canadian” position was inconsistent with Canada’s aspiration to become a major trading nation.  Another point I made was that the quality of cars made in North America was lower than those made by the Japanese; and I told him about a banner I had recently seen which was, ‘Build a car that your neighbour would buy”.

This led to a vigorous debate, which shifted his position on ‘Buy Canadian’ to encompass the concept of providing quality goods and services that people outside of Canada would buy. This he advanced in his bid to become the leader of the Conservative party of Canada. Unfortunately, he lost because most felt he was too quirky.

Bernie Sanders reminds me of Q. In my view, Bernie’s quirkiness is in large part the reason for his appeal to so many, particularly those who are decades younger than he is. He has readily acknowledged, “I’m a grumpy old man”, to which he could have added, “with much to be grumpy about”. His grumpiness is his most obvious quirk, and he uses it to the hilt, allowing him to be very direct in his messages. For example, his view on social media postings – “People don’t need to know what I buy in the grocery store or what the name of my dog is – I don’t have a dog, by the way; but they need to know why the billionaires are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

As an historical figure, Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the quirkiest. In ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India’, Joseph Lelyveld describes Gandhi this way: “possessed quirkiness, elusiveness and genius for reinvention”.  Lelyveld also labeled Gandhi as being “complicated, sage, spokesman, pamphleteer, petitioner, agitator, pilgrim, dietitian, nurse, seer and scroll.”

In Gandhi’s, autobiography, ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’, where he explored his experiences of different faiths, philosophical ideas and moral impulses, shows how he used his quirkiness to open his mind to alternatives; thereby to become that “genius for reinvention”.

In her book, ‘Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians: A Fourteen-year Study of Achievement and Life Choices’, (Jossey Bass Social and Behavioral Science Series), Karen Arnold describes her tracking high school valedictorians and wrote about their outcomes. What she found is they “did well but they were not real innovators or disrupters in their fields”, adding “They obey rules, work hard and they like learning but they are not mold makers”. And further adding, “They work best within the system and aren’t likely to change it.”

Organizations and individuals have to constantly reinvent themselves – the taxi industry is the most recent example of the fate that befalls those that don’t.

While organizational leaders have long held the view that innovation and creativity are essential to their sustained results, and many organizations have innovation imbedded into their value statements, few view the traits associated with creativity as being positive for leadership positions. Most are more comfortable with the high school valedictorians who Arnold tracked – those who “work best within the system and aren’t likely to change it.”

In her paper, ‘Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can a Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential?’, Jennifer Mueller at Cornell University argues that creative people lose out on leadership positions because of a bias against those who are “quirky”. Mueller asserts, “Companies need to debunk the stereotypes against creative people”, adding, “Key is how companies view the traits associated with creativity –  like ‘quirky’ and ‘unfocused’.”  Her warning is, “If those traits are viewed negatively, you have a problem.”

View your quirkiness, and the quirkiness of others as positive. Accept and accentuate your quirks and encourage others to embrace theirs.

(Andrew Faas is the author of ‘From Bully to Bull’s Eye – Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’ and a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University)

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