I believe Hamlet said it best, "To thine own self be true." These simple words keep us protected from the negative peer pressure we sometimes feel, while at the same time allow us to influence others in a positive way. Even as children we learned the importance of group dynamics and not being labeled an "outsider." When you think back to your childhood, how many times did you play a sport simply because your friends were playing that sport? Did you ever take courses in high school simply because you had friends in the course, although you didn’t like the subject? When you are surrounded by peer pressure early in life, it seems natural to conform to it as adults. Growing up, I never concerned myself with conforming to the group ‘just because’ and this attitude has remained with me. I believe we all add value to the group and the different ideas we share make the entire organization so much better.
Throughout my growing years, my father told me repeatedly how I needed to have the courage to stand up for what was right and to "shake as many trees" as necessary if I believed in the cause. It was wonderful growing up with a role model who challenged me yet who also allowed me to ask questions and speak for myself. I remember being 17-years-old (knowing I still had to complete my senior year of high school) wanting to sign-up for the Air Force. I went to the recruiter’s office and completed all of the paperwork, but I needed my parents’ permission since I was under the age of 18. I told my father what I had done, expecting him to be fully supportive since he was a 27-year Air Force veteran. To my surprise, he said that he "never really envisioned (me) joining the military and (I) wouldn’t enjoy being in an organization where (I) couldn’t feel free to speak up." I enlisted anyway and served my country; but, I can tell you my father was right. It was difficult at first. There truly is a need for people in the military to listen to orders and follow them without hesitation. In leadership we are afforded the opportunity to have those around us speak up and share their ideas which usually creates a much better plan.
In leadership, when people conform to the wants of others, there can be a major disconnect in the organization. I can speak from personal experience when I say that I would not want to work with people who simply say "yes" all the time and whom would agree with everything I say. This isn’t to say that, as leaders, we want to surround ourselves with people who disagree with everything we say and think that all directions are negotiable. However, having strong leaders on our teams who will challenge our thought process is a good thing.
Sam Walton called it "Swimming Upstream" or being a "Maverick", because he expected his leadership team to have the courage to stand their ground and defend their beliefs. I like to refer to this model of leadership as "Inspired Influence." Inspired influence doesn’t mean we disagree simply to disagree; it just means when we feel strongly about something, we stand up and don’t become a bobble-head dog and nod our way through. Sometimes we forget how peer pressure can work both ways as an influencer to how we behave. On one side, we can be influenced by others which may cause us to change our leadership style simply to conform to the status quo. On the other side, we can influence others by leading in a positive way, which can change the way others lead. With this power of inspired influence comes a great responsibility to lead in a positive manner and to help shape the future leaders of our organizations.
Even as we face pressure to conform to the ways and ideas of others at times, we must stay true to our convictions. When we have the courage to stand strong in the face of adversity, we can hopefully influence others to change for the better. In order to do this, we must know who we truly are and commit ourselves to speaking up when the time is right; not disagree just to do so. Tony Dungy once said, "If you approach things positively, you can grow into a position of influence simply by remaining true to who you are." Our teams deserve to have leaders who know who they are and whom are willing to stand up for what’s right, even if it’s not politically favorable to do so.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.