I need to again give attribution to my Austrian friend. He made a comment about standing out in the crowd that rolled around in my head for a while and resulted in the following.
Standing out does not necessarily mean that you are outstanding. It will be wise to remember this. Write it on the inside of your notebook. Possibly even tattoo it on the palm of your hand in the spot where you once wrote your crib notes for tests in school. You will need to continually remind yourself of this fact as you go through your business career. That being said, while being outstanding is always nice, there is really only one way to make progress in the leadership ranks, and that is to stand out.
Standing out requires you to separate yourself from the rest of the office herd. This in itself is something of a risk. It is easy to stay quiet and do as you are told. This is also the way to be part of the crowd. The crowd is safe. If you really want to be safe you can stop reading here, and get up and go close your door, and lock it. You could also possibly put a desk or cabinet in front of it for further safety. This will assure that your door cannot be opened, from either side.
Also notice how I phrased it that you needed to stand out from the crowd and not necessarily be outstanding in the crowd. Being outstanding is always a good way to stand out, but not everyone is or even can be outstanding. As an example, let’s look at a few of the most significant military leaders for the United States in the twentieth century.
General George Patton commanded the US forces in the European theater during World War II. He graduated forty sixth out of one hundred three from the West Point Military Academy. He obviously was not outstanding at school. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander (and future president of the US) similarly graduated in the middle of his class at West Point. Similarly not outstanding at school. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the most recent of the leaders being discussed and commander of the Desert Storm operation in the 1990’s, is the only one who graduated in the top ten percent of his class at West Point.
My point here is that only one out of arguable three of the most famous military leaders of our recent times was even remotely regarded as being outstanding during their formative years in their chosen profession. To further this point (I really don’t know how I got started on this military bent other than it brings forward historical figures that we should all be familiar with), General George Custer (yes, that one of Little Big Horn fame) graduated last in his class at West Point. Yes, Last. I bring this up because it should also be noted that at the age of twenty three Custer became the youngest general in the Union army during the Civil War and was regarded as one of the Union’s bravest and best leaders. Go figure.
With all that being said, how does one stand out in business? How does one become recognized as a leader? There are many different and various paths that can be taken in order to stand out, but I think they were in general reduced down to variations of the following three by my Austrian friend; be brilliant, be vocal, or be a pain in the ass. My addition to his analysis is that it may not be just any one of these paths that can lead to success. In some instances it may require someone to be a brilliant, vocal pain in the ass.
I would like to think of myself as nominally the brilliant leader of my family’s household, but I am pretty sure that my wife just considers me to be more of just a vocal pain in the ass.
Of the four leaders previously noted, only one, Schwarzkopf was considered to be brilliant. He was outstanding at West Point and was someone who was widely considered to be very intelligent and his class rank reflected that. But here as in business (as apparently in the military) brilliance will not be enough. There were plenty of cadets who graduated ahead of both Patton and Eisenhower who were probably likewise considered to be brilliant, but for some reason did not reach the heights that Patton and Eisenhower did.
This means that it is probably not just the brilliance that is important, but more so the application of that knowledge. You would assume that all the graduates from West Point accumulated roughly the same type and level of knowledge from that intnstitution, but it was not always the “brilliant” ones that advanced. Brilliance seems to be able to provide an edge or an advantage but in and of itself probably will not carry the day. I find this point to be somewhat heartening since I did not graduate at the top of my class nor can I claim to be particularly brilliant either.
That must mean that it is the being vocal, and / or the being a pain in the ass that will have a major effect on standing out and success. When you think about it, it only makes sense. Being vocal, or the being a pain in the ass means you are communicating, and it is the communicating of your ideas, positions or solutions that will enable you to stand out.
Please don’t get me wrong. I think being smart is better than not being smart. No one likes a vocal idiot, and an ignorant pain in the ass has all the attributes that Darwin’s theory of evolution would indicate nature would select against.
Custer performed the worst at West Point, but also achieved the general’s rank far faster than any of the others we are discussing. He is also probably best remembered for his reported folly in taking a contingent of approximately 500 soldiers into battle against a force close to 2,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Sitting Bull. However before that event, during the Civil War, Custer was acknowledged as a military strategist, tactician and leader who clearly proposed his goals and then would lead every one of his campaigns from the front of his column, and achieve his objective. He may have had many failings, some of which obviously may have led to his demise, but it seems that it was his ability to set and communicate his objectives (be vocal) to both his men and his superiors, and then to lead (successfully) from the front (taking the risk himself) that made him stand out from so many of the others in the military at that time.
With all that being said about Custer, it is also always a good idea to have much better information than he did when it comes to understanding any potential opposition that may be standing between you to your stated goals.
I guess you are considered vocal when your opinions, beliefs and actions are in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it would seem that the equivalent definition of a pain in the ass would be when your opinions, beliefs and actions are not in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it seems to me that I may have made a career out of being a pain in the ass (and not just according to my wife).
This does not mean that you should avoid being considered a pain in the ass. Most leaders that I know search out those people who have a considered different opinion from their own. As a leader I already have an opinion. I hope that it is considered and well thought out (however my wife usually doesn’t think so). I need other, different opinions to help me ascertain whether my opinion is the best one or if there are better ones out there. I can only do this when those other opinions are communicated to me.
Whether or not those communicated opinions come from people that agree with me (the vocal ones) or those that don’t (the pains in the ass), I have to figure out which are generated by the brilliant and which are not so much. Either way it is those that take a stand and put forth an opinion that get noticed. And of those it is usually the ones that have put in the effort, time and thought to intelligently support their opinion that truly stand out.
Now the last question left to resolve will be:
If I have an opinion that is different from my wife’s by logic it means that she has a different opinion from me. Does that make me a pain in her ass, or is she a pain in mine? I guess it depends on who is nominally in charge at our house.
Ouch. I think I may have to rethink that last little bit.