CEO Coaching: Resisting Normative Pressure

Most of my blog readers don’t wake up every day and think, “I want to be only as good as most other people.” I know that many of you want to leave your mark on the world and succeed versus just survive. (There are many ways to succeed, well beyond money and status.) Conformity and break-out performance, by definition, cannot coexist. If that’s so, why be normal? 

We were pushed to “fit in” since we were young children, and justifiably so, in most regards. Having good table manners, doing your homework, cleaning your room, eating your vegetables — those are all good things when not taken to an extreme. Even as adults, fitting in is often appropriate. Following traffic signals, paying your taxes and continuing to eat your vegetables are all appropriate. Be “normal” in those areas, by all means; stay between the guardrails.

Because I’m a CEO coach and not a nutritionist, let’s switch from vegetables to leading others. There are normative behaviors that are appropriate for executives. If you run a public company, filing 10-Ks and 10-Qs is neither optional nor the place for creativity. Revenue minus expenses isn’t a rule to ignore. Treating people with respect and giving them autonomy is pretty well proven to be the right way to go. In other words, being a rebel in the wrong arena will just bankrupt you or worse.

However (you knew that word was coming, didn’t you?!), acquiescing to normative pressure and following established procedures isn’t the path to success, unless you want to be like everyone else. 

Only a weak-kneed CEO says, “I want the same strategy as my competitor — same products, same markets, same production methods, and same management practices.” Strategy is about being different! A Catholic priest might want to be exactly like the guy in the next church and follow the same rules, but in business that’s crazy. 

Some best practices are appropriate to adopt, but guess what? They came from someone who broke the rules!

Jeff Bezos didn’t want to be a normal bookseller. Sam Walton didn’t want to run a typical five-and-dime. Both adopted some well-established business and leadership techniques, but they also wanted to resist normative pressure. They knew that to succeed, they needed to be different, not just better.

Many of us are too fearful of looking different, of making mistakes, of trying to achieve wild things. We self-edit our great ideas. Maybe we should blame our parents, the school system or organized religion, but perhaps we ought to own it and create a different definition of success.

My wish for you is to not have a normal week! Do something different, something crazy! And if you fail, call it a learning experience.

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