The Curse of the Eccentric Professional

There are extraordinary people in every industry. Fashion Design and Advertising are filled with eccentric professionals. Let's call them E.P.s. These E.P.s are people with artistic temperaments. They're often inspiring, big-picture communicators. They're more likely to be iconoclasts and trailblazers. They are specifically suited to positions of leadership because they often have a sense of the big picture that more traditional, conventional-minded people do not have. The best leaders are inspired communicators, and the most inspired communicators are often E.Ps. How is it, then, that so many leaders are such awful communicators? Where are the E.P.s? Well, many famous leaders have been E.P.s, but most eccentric professionals struggle for relevance and respect in a world obsessed with the appearance, rather than the actual possession, of talent, ability and leadership.

A fiery temperament, clear communication and fearlessness are great qualities in a leader, but with these extraordinary qualities comes a terrible curse. E.P.s who do not successfully manage others' expectations of their value are doomed to fail. Women have a particularly rough task of managing others' unconscious attitudes about gender, but to some extent, every E.P. with a shred of ambition, male or female, struggles to control how others see them, knowing that one misstep could color perceptions of them forever and ruin their chances of earning or maintaining professional respect.

E.P.s can be natural leaders, but those not born into positions of authority (sorry, Anna Wintour, but you might as well have been born a Royal) must fight much harder to earn respect. Sometimes, they must prove themselves again and again to be taken seriously. A natural leader's powerful sense of what is right and wrong forces them to speak out when it isn't popular, but the line between speaking out and simply bitching is easy to cross when you're seen as eccentric. After a while, people tune you out. Sometimes, an E.P.'s own natural inclination to lead - and the force of their personality - can alienate others whose natural inclinations are to be passive and politically cautious.

If you aren't passive in your job, when the expectation is that you should be, you can leave people with the impression that you are unstable. You will be shunned unless you exercise extreme caution in revealing your feelings and motives. Acting out, or showing frustration, or causing trouble, or making waves, is looked on as an inhibitor to control and professionalism. Deeper still are cultural expectations that the most deserving of respect and leaderships always ask their questions quietly, or better still, go in already knowing the answer. There is a real advantage to being quiet and soft spoken, even passive. Anyone with real talent who has an expressive, loud or exaggerated way of expressing themselves is at an immediate disadvantage to the person who knows less and does less but engages in restraint and and shoulder-shrugging passivity.

E.P.s, on the other hand, have a hard time staying quiet. They are after all, great communicators. Sometimes, the E.P.'s immense ambition, sense of momentum, and moral vision can backfire. They have a strong expectation of how they want to be treated, and they expect compensatory reward for their output, and the frustration at not getting it can be overwhelming. This is okay as long as they are in a position to lead. If they are not in that position, then they are seen as prima donnas. Don't make waves, they are told. Just get it done. Any independent, passionate person with half a conscience under a yolk for long enough time will snap eventually. E.P.s who come face to face with the realization that obedience is demanded of them will lash out. To anyone on the outside looking in, someone who lashes out this way is simply not in control enough to handle a leadership position.

A lot of companies talk about seeking extraordinary talent, but what they're really seeking is extraordinary talent in a passive, quiet, and controlled artifice. Companies don't care if you're extraordinary, so long as you don't challenge what's being asked of you, even if you feel it wastes the companies money and the client's time. If you make the wrong kind of noise, you fail. This expectation of obedience with results is common. The message is clear: your accomplishments are not nearly as important as others' estimation of your attitude. That will determine your success, not your talent, not your efficiency, and not your contributions.

The real winners, again, are those who are most adept at managing others' expectations of their value. It is the very essence of success. To achieve this, one must:

* Be intuitive about people. Ignore things that are unfair and respond only to things that are positive.

* Filter out the bad and only act on things that came out in your favor. If you must act on negative issues, do it passively and without much noise.

* Be very skilled at constructing a professional persona that doesn't make waves. If you aren't, then good luck to you, because you're going to be swimming against the tide your whole career.

If you are extraordinarily capable and talented, but you've struggled with company culture even once in an effort to improve it or force others' opinions of you to change, just forget it. Companies only value the artists and circular thinkers as long as they are obedient. The most extraordinary and innovative iconoclasts - those who by definition, do not 'toe the line' - often ruffle too many feathers to be placed in positions of great visibility or impact. Meanwhile, the greatest value goes to the quiet ones, the ones on the down-low, the ones who practice caution and quiet and subtlety.

The practice of rewarding people smart and savvy enough to go with the flow has resulted in a management culture filled with snakes in the grass. Don't misunderstand - most sly and passive people are not mediocre. They just don't belong in leadership. Unfortunately, obedient, passive people are usually seen as most in control of their faculties, most to be trusted, are are often handed the reigns of leadership. Non E.P.s who lack inspired leadership skills are not always great at communicating their expectations to others, and it comes as no shock, therefore, that many of us struggles with managers who communicate badly. Executive and management culture is inherently self absorbed. It's concerned with shareholder perception. It's concerned with client perception. It's passive-aggressive, and judgmental of any E.P., and quite mediocre. This executive culture, as with any culture that has lost the ability to self-regulate, is actually very corrupt.

What is the difference between the self-absorbed mediocrity common in managers and executives, and the self-absorbed eccentricity common in eccentric professionals? Well, the difference is, E.P.s are more likely to make a difference as leaders. They're more likely to change things that are broken. They're more likely to communicate their expectations in a clearer ways. They're more likely to help their companies adapt to an always-evolving industry. They're better at the big, important shit. And yet, they have to work so much harder to earn the right to do it. I think that's wrong.


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