Sunday, November 28, 2021
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Coloring Outside the Lines

This column will probably make every HR person, risk management professional and compliant “C” person from the DiSC behavior self-assessment cringe. It will, however, make “movers and shakers” and “disruptors” smile. Why? Because we are going to chat about folks who like to “color outside the lines” and why those of us who do, or have done so, are actually needed. It’s because we are often the very people needed at the right time to make good things happen.

My wife and I are huge fans of the long-running hit show “NCIS,” and it’s lead character Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played so well by actor Mark Harmon for the past 19 years.  Coincidentally, the shows co-creator is none other than Penn State alumnus Don Bellisario, who in 2017 made a $30 million gift to name the College of Communications at his alma mater. 

I was inspired to write about this topic after watching episode four of season 19 that aired on Oct. 11.

A new character, FBI agent Alden Parker (Gary Cole), was introduced this season. In this episode Parker defies a direct order from his FBI superiors when he doesn’t arrest suspended NCIS Agent Gibbs, who had kidnapped an FBI suspect to bring a case to a close in his typical borderline-vigilante style. Afterward, Gibbs gives himself up to Parker. 

But Parker says to Gibbs, “Seems you have a history of coloring outside the lines. But so do I, on occasion.” Then he uncuffs Gibbs and says he won’t testify against him because he knows Gibbs’ actions led to the best outcome. 

The FBI fires Parker for not going through with Gibbs’ arrest, but Parker ends up getting hired by NCIS, to take Gibbs’ place when Gibbs decides to retire.  Gibbs’ former boss, NCIS Director Leon Vance, tells a couple of NCIS agents that Parker got fired for disobeying a direct order. When questioned by one of the younger agents about why Parker would risk his job, Director Vance calmly says, “…sometimes there are more important things than following orders.” 

You see, sometimes, to make real progress in difficult matters, you must be willing to break a few rules and take a few liberties with policy. I can just see the memo coming to me from the human resources office now!  

Let me clarify: It can be deemed acceptable if your solution is legal and has a positive intent (and outcome) for the greater good. As Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) so eloquently states in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, “The Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

A few of my former mentors preached over my career that there are times when it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Did I personally push the envelope too far several times during my career? Absolutely.

I am also a big fan of the “Heartbreak Ridge,” in which Clint Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, who won the Medal of Honor in Korea. Later in life, he is constantly harassed by Everett McGill’s paper-pushing Major Malcom Powers, an operations officer who does everything “by the book.” In a particularly tense moment in the movie, Eastwood’s character responds to a reprimand from his younger superior, “We’re paid to improvise, sir. Overcome. Adapt.” 

“It is sometimes easier to tame a wild stallion than to motivate a passive pony.” -Anonymous

“Well behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

“When your views are truly contrarian, they are inevitably uncomfortable. Courage and the ability to withstand pain are required.” — Michael Steinhardt

I would like to consider myself a connector, a collaborator, an innovator, a person who gets things done. But I also realize I am flawed, at times a contrarian, a devil’s advocate, a feather-ruffler and someone who likes to color outside the lines. I am willing to play the role of the person who will bring up an objection to the conventional wisdom to be sure we have considered all the ramifications of our decisions, especially when we are about to wimp out or take the path of least resistance.  That doesn’t make me the most popular person in the room. So be it.

I think we should have the courage to look hard at everything that’s going on and break it into components. Perhaps it’s the policy, rule or guideline that is wrongly created, presenting an impediment to developing the best option and making the most informed decision.  Think differently, be curious, be courageous.

Potential consequences? For sure. Actions have consequences. Look at (now former) Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich who was fired for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In his opinion, he was simply applying a religious objection as his refusal to get vaccinated. It was in direct conflict with an edict from the governor that all state employees must get the vaccine.  While I admire him for his courage of convictions, he paid the price for his defiance. Only time will tell if his decision was ultimately worth losing a job with an annual salary of $3.2 million.

I have studied leadership my whole life and have made some great decisions, some good decisions and some real losers. But what I have observed in my 40 years in the workforce is the disconnect that often exists between what the CEO and executive staff of organizations want and the tactics that are implemented in the chain of command. There are times when a CEO wants to hire employees with bold new ideas and people willing to push envelopes, that think outside the box and, dare I say, color outside the lines to be difference makers. However, the legal department, risk management folks and the HR people typically want employees who won’t rattle cages or cause any issues. The kind of compliant, rules-following, good soldiers who would never disobey an order.

Hmmm, we seem to have ourselves a conundrum here. If you keep doing the same thing you will keep getting the same result.

Those who know me, and my personality, won’t be surprised to see on my bookshelf the 2005 management book by Dave Anderson, “If You Don’t Make Waves, You’ll Drown: 10 Hard Charging Strategies for Leading in Politically Correct Times.” Let’s just say that Anderson’s book won’t be found in too many academic settings these days or in corporate training programs. Here are a few of his beliefs from the book.

  • Tenure is a license for laziness
  • Diversity without competence is worthless
  • Don’t trade your values for valuables
  • Political correctness is a disease that destroys the workplace
  • It’s time to fight back!

Yeah, try to get that list past your professional development people and hiring managers today! 

People would rather be miserable because it’s certain than to risk becoming happy because the changes are uncertain. So too often we choose the comfortable path because change can be hard.

There are certainly times in my life that I wish I could get a do-over to have handled things differently and “better.”  But then again, maybe if I had been that version of me, I wouldn’t have colored outside the lines and become a difference-maker, especially in some of my biggest career and life decisions. I made some choices that were ill-advised and that didn’t work out so well. But I also took a few calculated risks that have ended up working out quite nicely, for the greater good. I know not everyone sees my behavior as exemplary, and when I have made some miscalculations, I have paid a price. My biggest issue at times has been my stubbornness in proving I might be right versus a softer and more subtle way of proving to be effective. Patience has never been a strong suit for me.

The world would be pretty dull and monotonous if we were all the same and all had the same thoughts. I think the world needs more contrarians who are willing to color outside the lines every now and then.  We still need people willing to take chances, to break barriers, to push the envelope and to be the contrarian against groupthink.

Consider the employee so scared of being admonished and ridiculed that they will choose the path of least resistance and let one great opportunity after another slip into darkness. If you never ask, the answer will always be “no.”  NHL Hall of Famer and all-time leading scorer Wayne Gretzky (aka “The Great One”) is famous for his quote that, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Take more shots, people!  

Think of President Abraham Lincoln’s courage to think outside the box, ruffle a few feathers, be the contrarian and color outside the lines, when he resisted calls to remove Ulysses S. Grant from his command of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. His response to his naysayers: “I can’t spare this man — he fights.”  If Lincoln had continued to use the same tired process to select his generals, Grant would never have been selected. Instead, Lincoln went with his intuition and gut. He went against conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, Grant would never get past many of today’s resume algorithms to even be considered for the position.

Everyone has a role to play in a successful organization. We need the steady performers, the compliant good soldiers, the creative innovators and those with the courage to truly lead. Just remember to include the contrarian, the risk taker, the feather-ruffler, the person who occasionally colors outside the lines. Have the courage to hire a few of them and the patience to coach them to be more effective. They just might be what your team, organization, or business needs to get past the toughest challenges.