Thursday, October 21, 2010

Misfit Leaders

I mentioned Dan Pallotta a post or so ago as one of the bloggers at the Harvard Business Review that I always make sure I read. His posts sometimes sit in my "to read" pile for a while before I get to them, but I always get to them because, even though I don't always agree with him, I find his ideas challenging and inspiring.

Here's the latest case in point--Misfit Entrepreneurs.

"There's a misfit in each of us," Pallotta says, "and it's the most delicate, precious thing that we have."

Sadly, most people make it their life's mission to hide it, to cover it over in the same clothes, the same work, the same "regurgitations," as Thomas Merton wrote, as everyone else. This virus of homogenization has infected the landscape. Our backdrop in real life now mimics the scenery repetition you'd see in a Fred Flintstone cartoon as he drove down the street. But now it's Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks.

Why do we do this? Because, Pallotta says, "To embrace the misfit in oneself is to be vulnerable."

It is to forsake the easy acceptance that comes with fitting in and to instead be fortified by a kind of love, really. A love of life, a love of wonder, and, ultimately, a sustaining love for oneself. Far from egoism, that love for oneself is a measure of one's love for others, for humanity. And it is only from love that great ideas can be born.

And those who embrace their inner misfit, who turn this vulnerability--this love of a great idea--out towards the world? Well, they, Pallotta says, become the greatest entrepreneurs of all.

This kind of love cannot be taught in business school. It has to be felt. It has to be given sanctuary away from the noise and relentless assault of information. And then it has to be nurtured. It must be embraced, in the light of day, for all to see, for people to ridicule, to criticize, to laugh at. And the entrepreneur has to be willing to feel the pain of that ridicule and suffer the risk of the dream being stolen, or crushed by the meanness of this world. But the misfit doesn't worry about that. The misfit has a higher calling: to bring the unmanifest into being, no matter who is saying what.

"Vulnerability," Pallotta concludes, "is the absence of cynicism." And all the great entrepreneurs he knows have this willingness to be vulnerable, this abject lack of cynicism.

It's inspiring stuff. But it leaves me with a few questions.

Are GenX leaders willing to vulnerable? Yes, in my experience, they certainly are. As I've recently argued, they generally don't pretend that they know everything, and are far more willing to have their ideas challenged than leaders of previous generations.

But aren't GenX leaders cynical? You bet they are. I think it's their cynicism that makes them vulnerable. It makes them second guess institutions, other people, and even their own assumptions, and they're constantly seeking multiple options and fall back positions as a result.

So can GenX leaders be great entrepreneurs? To better define what he means by a great entrepreneur, Pallotta tells this story:

I used to visit the merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Los Angeles where [Walt] Disney once took his daughters, asking himself, "Is this all there is? There has to be a better place to take my children." And the rest is history. The great entrepreneur — the entrepreneur who really changes things — is the one who, in 2010, goes to Disneyland and asks the same question: "Is this all there is?" And the new world she or he will create as a result of that audacious inquiry is one that cannot possibly be conceived by people busy trying to fit into the world as it is.

Well, if that's the definition--some one who asks "Is that all there is" and then sets about to really change things--then yes, I would say GenX leaders can be great entrepreneurs. I'm cynical, but I still believe the world can be changed. Don't you?


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