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9 Virtues Blog

Original Leaders

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.


The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

–George Bernard Shaw

A couple of years ago, I read a book by Adam Grant entitled Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World (Viking, 2016). As it turns out, being original is difficult. I remember, about 12 years ago, commenting to a Leadership Institute class, “There are no Einsteins in the room.”

As you might expect from a room full of high achievers, someone immediately said, “You don’t know that!” I remember responding that the comment was intended to illustrate a particular point about singular genius, but that I stood by my wager. A decade later, my wager remains safe.

It is far easier to conform, to adapt, even to lead by incrementally changing what you have inherited. Conformity, too, can be a path to achievement. As a leader, conformity is less risky, but I would propose that it’s less interesting and less fun, and means that one is not bringing his or her uniqueness to the organization or situation.

The matter is further complicated because one can be original with a bad idea. We know that original people make many contributions that are of lesser light than the brilliance on which their reputations stand.

  • Most of us know about Einstein’s annus mirabilis—four papers in 1905 that established the foundation of modern physics and changed our view of space, time, mass, and energy. What can you tell me about his roughly 240 other publications?
  • When the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six pieces by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach. But consider that Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before he died at age 35; Beethoven, 650; and Bach, over 1,000 (while fathering 20 children).
  • Agatha Christie is the most published novelist in history. She is estimated to have sold around two billion books, having written 69 novels and 19 plays. Most of this work was done between 1920 and 1976, equating to about three publications every two years. Her estate claims that her works come third in the rankings of most-published books, behind Shakespeare and the Bible.

I have two points to make. Here’s the first one: Quality matters, but so does quantity. As a leader, you must try a lot of things, much of which—maybe most of which—will be mediocre, and some of which will be refuse. But do not be afraid to try out your ideas, put them on the table, take some risks. Getting that marshmallow atop a noodle takes much trial and error. That’s okay. Give yourself that freedom to create rather than conform.

Here is my second point. Grant defines original as “A thing of singular or unique character; a person who is different from other people in an appealing or interesting way; a person of fresh initiative and inventive capacity.” By definition, then, each one of us is an original. In all human history, past, present, and future, there will never be another you. But Grant does not go far enough here, at least where leadership is concerned.

Originality must be combined with authenticity.

Authentic leaders are conscious of their (1) uniqueness and (2) responsibility to bring who they are to the situation. I hope you’ve achieved some of this consciousness, this awareness of your uniqueness. Authenticity is “self” making. Ask yourself: Am I merely a function of the roles I play, or do I commit to help write a new play? In The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential (Deeds, 2015), Rob Jenkins and I argue that developing virtues is likewise a form of self-making. Virtuous leaders are authentic leaders; they remain true to their character.

When I was about 20, I discovered a writer named Soren Kierkegaard. He was an Original. Although he died in 1855, at the young age of 42, he was prodigious and profound. He is the father of a school of philosophy now known as existentialism.

Had I to carve an inscription on my tombstone I would ask for none other than "The Individual."

–Soren Kierkegaard

When you think of your legacy as a leader, a legacy I hope you will write over many years to come, make it something that only you, the individual, could have done.