I made a new friend last week. I got chatting after a meeting to a woman who works in a senior communications position for one of our clients.
We got talking about being difficult and how being difficult is critical to success.
My new friend works for a large international brand. Following a presentation by their CEO to senior staff, she asked if she could give him some feedback. She was polite but firm, it was not good. The team needed leadership not PowerPoints and, quite frankly, he lacked charisma.
People react in two ways to difficult information:
- Defensive – yes but; it was a difficult audience; I am who I am; we already do that … or best of all, this is how we have always done it (how many companies have failed after uttering those magic words…)
- or Embrace it
He chose the latter and now they’re having monthly get-togethers – booked in the diary as “a meeting with the difficult one”.
Difficult people are difficult. Difficult to manage. Impossible to control and don’t play by your rules. But difficult people in the right environment can change how we view the world and transform businesses. There are countless examples of difficult people, those who stood up against the norms… of the way things have always been done: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Steve Jobs, Dick Fosbury, Nathan Blecharczyk, Mary Barra, Elon Musk… the list goes on.
These are the King’s Jesters. The people who are not afraid to stand up and say what they think – and most importantly, say what needs to be said.
The majority of us and, guess what, the majority of businesses, don’t want to change. It means taking a risk, stepping into the unknown. We would rather stick to what we know, the familiar, even if that means business failure. We cling to the side of the boat even though we know it’s sinking – because we’re too scared of what might happen if we let go... the boat, has after all, never sunk before…
We would rather die a certain death than risk an uncertain life.
But its precisely the state of uncertainty that creates the tension needed for growth. It’s the paradox of business – tension and conflict creates the environment needed for growth and success.
Leadership is about creating an environment of positive conflict and harnessing the latent force of difficult people to help drive that success.
I first learnt of Dick Fosbury when I was at school. This was the guy who redefined High Jumping by creating, what at the time, was labelled in the press as the Fosbury Flop, “like a fish flopping out of a boat,” or less kind still, “the world’s laziest high jumper.”
Despite push back from coaches, school-mates and press – Dick Fosbury abandoned the way "we have always done it", to create a new approach now practiced the world over. In doing so, he set the course for new records and enabled future athletes to reach new heights that never would have been possible had he not questioned the status quo and found a way of jumping that worked for him.
There are five characteristics of the Dick Fosbury's of this world; five things that makes them difficult but necessary.
- They question everything
- They say what they think and have no real sense of boundaries
- They do not compromise their beliefs, standards or integrity – they have something deep inside them and they will never let it go
- They are driven by a higher calling – customers, ethics, integrity, success, winning – it doesn’t matter, but their feet are planted in something solid, not in politics, appeasement or apathy
- They are not afraid of confrontation
These people are your natural leaders. They might not be running your business and they certainly don’t make the best managers – but they are the visionaries, the ones who are four steps ahead of you and not afraid to speak. They’re the ones your other team members are looking to.
You’re going to have to forgive the cliché, but sometimes they just paint the right picture. It’s the grit inside the oyster that makes the pearl… It’s the tiny flecks of dust in our otherwise gaseous atmosphere that allows it to rain.
When you’re hiring or looking for new people to join your team – be brave, look for the little grits, the people that will disrupt but ultimately put you, your team and your business in a better place.
Be a little grit. Hire a little grit.
Check out the great TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan on daring to disagree.