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Thought Thursdays
Lessons for leaders from Originals


In Adam Grant’s book Originals, published in 2016, the author defines the concept of original as not only an adjective, but also a noun. As a noun, it is defined as a thing of singular or unique character or a person who is different from other people in an appealing or interesting way. It can also be understood as a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity.

As part of clarifying the concept, reference is made to the work of psychologists who discovered two routes to achievement, namely that of conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo, while originality is taking the road less travelled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain, but ultimately make things better. 

Importantly, the author concludes that nothing is completely original. All ideas are influenced by what and from whom we learn. Furthermore, originality starts with creativity, i.e. generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.

The book contains many lessons for leaders, such as, but not limited to, the importance of building effective coalitions; the narcissism of small difference; the fact that siblings, parents and mentors nurture originality; the dark side of commitment cultures; the positive power of negative thinking; and rethinking groupthink.

For the purpose of this article, I would like to focus on three of these many lessons that leaders need to be aware of.

Lesson 1: Overconfidence in evaluating self

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
Scott Adams

Overconfidence is a particularly difficult bias to overcome in the creative domain. When we develop an idea, we are too close to our own tastes – and too far from the audience’s taste – to evaluate it accurately. A possible solution would be to kiss many frogs. It is widely assumed that with the frog kissing approach, there is a trade-off between quantity and quality, i.e. if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it. This turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predicable path to quality. The best way to get better at judging our own ideas is to gather feedback. Put a lot of ideas out there and see which ones are praised and adopted by your audience.

It is also necessary to consider that conviction in our ideas is dangerous, not only because it leaves us vulnerable to false positives, but also because it stops us from generating the requisite variety to reach our creative potential.  

As we gain knowledge about a domain, we become prisoners of our prototypes. Instead of attempting to assess our own originality or seeking feedback from managers, we ought to turn more often to our other colleagues. They lack the risk-aversion of managers and test audiences and they are open to seeing potential in unusual possibilities, which guards against false negatives.

Lesson 2: Confusing power with status

Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds.
Albert Einstein

A second lesson from Originals for leaders to note has to do with confusing power with status. Power involves exercising control or authority over others, while status means being respected and admired. Status cannot be claimed; it has to be earned or granted.

Leaders and managers appreciate it when employees take the initiative to offer help, build networks, gather new knowledge, and seek feedback. But there’s one form of initiative that gets penalied: speaking up with suggestions. This can be ‘corrected’ by first attaining the appropriate status, while not in a position of power.

In an experiment, when individuals voiced their objections to racism, they were criticised as self-righteous by those who failed to speak out against it. When we climb up the moral ladder, it can be rather lonely at the top.

In a section of the book entitled Quitting before Leaving, Grant uses the following diagram to explain part of his thinking on this.

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Fundamentally, these four choices are based on feelings of control and commitment. If you believe you’re stuck with the status quo, you’ll choose neglect when you’re not committed, and persistence when you are. If you do feel you can make a difference, but you are not committed to the person, country, or organisation, you will leave (exit). Only when you believe your actions matter and you care deeply will you consider speaking up (voice).

At work, our sense of commitment and control depends more on our direct manager than on anyone else. With a supportive leader, our bond with the organisation strengthens and we feel a greater span of influence.

Lesson 3: Enemies make better allies than frenemies

In fact, the only sin which we never forgive in each other is difference of opinion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the Godfather: Part II, Michael Corleone advises: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. There is a dilemma with this, namely what we should do about people who don’t fall neatly into either category.
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​Negative relationships are unpleasant, but they’re predictable. If a colleague consistently undermines you, you can keep your distance and expect the worst. But when you’re dealing with an ambivalent relationship, you’re constantly on your guard, grappling with questions about when that person can actually be trusted.

Michelle Duffy declares: “It takes more emotional energy and coping resources to deal with individuals who are inconsistent.”

In a series of groundbreaking studies, psychologist Bert Uchino found that ambivalent relationships are literally unhealthier than negative relationships. Our instinct is to sever our bad relationships and salvage the ambivalent ones. But the evidence from research suggests that we ought to do the opposite: cut our frenemies and attempt to convert our enemies. Our best allies are not the people who have supported us all along. They are the ones who started out against us and then came around to our side.

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it difficult to plan the day.
EB White

The book concludes with practical actions we can take to unleash originality. Grant suggests that the first steps are for individuals to generate, recognise, voice, and champion new ideas. The next set is for leaders to stimulate novel ideas and build cultures that welcome dissent. The final recommendations are for parents and teachers to help children become comfortable taking a creative or moral stand against the status quo.
Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.

Prof Basil C Leonard is a part-time facilitator at USB-ED, and Programme Manager: Special Projects at City of Cape Town. His areas of expertise include emotional intelligence, personal mastery, leadership, and motivational public speaking.​ He recently presented Originals at our We Read for You​ event.

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