There’s a term in positive psychology that I love––positively deviant. It refers to a particular leadership style that falls outside the norm. Not in a bad way. It’s actually considered extremely positive in leadership to be a bit off the centre of the bell curve.
“Positive deviance is intentional behaviours that go beyond the norm in honourable ways.”
— Spreitzer and Sonenshein
I can already think off the top of my head of half a dozen great leaders that might have been accused of being a little deviant or eccentric in their time. It got me thinking, what are the qualities of these slightly (or sometimes very) eccentric people that make them great leaders?
I think the thing is, while the approaches of an eccentric person to business, leadership or to life in general might have quirks that people don’t always relate to, deviant or eccentric leaders are usually driven by the same thing and it’s that thing that forged them paths as leaders in the first place––vision.
When I looked into character traits of eccentric people, I found a lot in common with skills of a great leader. Things like idealism, creativity, obsession, strong opinions. While a lot of these traits can get a person very un-liked or misunderstood if not channelled correctly, when you pair them with vision and give them a team of people that can see that vision, then these quirks will be a power that can propel business into eccentric figures.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the traits of eccentric people and how they might help (and hinder) in leadership roles.
Eccentrics are often idealists. And idealists are often regarded as a bit unhinged. Their perfect idea of things and the way things should be might not be cohesive in a social sense, but I think, in business, if you have a sort of idealism––and you are in a leadership role––this can actually help get things done. Of course, it can work in an adverse way in the case of cult leaders and religious extremism, but generally speaking, a little idealism in business can be highly motivating.
Eccentricity is really just a person living their own way, someone who really doesn’t give a toss what other people think of them. And eccentric people will generally have very strong opinions. To be opinionated you must believe very strongly in your views, and just like idealism, you’ll live by them and not be afraid to speak up about them. Strong leaders need this same backbone. However, a really great leader also needs to be able to show empathy and understanding and be able to admit when they’re wrong, so there is a fine balance required here.
Now, break yourself out of the notion that you have to be a painter, or a saxophone player, or a quirky dresser to show creativity. Creativity is about being able to see things from a different view. Science is also considered creative, so is maths and so is logical thinking. Eccentrics can usually see things from a different view, which is why they sit on the fringe, and why they make exceptional leaders. Problem solving comes from being able to see things from outside the box. You can train yourself to do so, but it’s something that ‘eccentric’ people do almost naturally which makes them great at leading teams.
Of course, not all leaders need to be quirky and eccentric, because not all employees relate to pjamas days and rock-climbing walls in the lunchroom. At the end of the day, one of the most important traits of a great leader is confidence in themselves and authenticity, so if you’re not eccentric, trying to make yourself be quirky ain’t going to cut it. But, I guess the lesson here is, be yourself and keep your vision clear and your people will respect you, no matter how left of centre it might feel.