It was my first week as a newly minted manager at a major telecom company and already I was getting a sense of what upper management considered one of my first orders of business.
Clean up Bob.
Bob was one of the writers on my communications staff. You couldn’t miss him. He wore jeans that looked like they had spent a bad night in a juke joint bar, untied tennis shoes, tangled hair that draped over the collar of his road-hardened Harley Davidson jacket. His cubicle was a wasteland of crumpled paper, some of it the wrappers of a week-long fast food hamburger fest. He was by any measure an assault on corporate conformity. Something had to be done.
Except he was brilliant. He had a way of capturing ideas and experiences in words that was simply unmatched. You could give him the hardest of assignments (which I often did to keep him occupied) and it always came back exponentially better than you could imagine. I convinced upper management to leave him alone – a accomplishment dimmed only by the reality that I would likely have failed to change him anyway. Nor, after a while, did I want to.
He was at times tempestuous and bombastic, but he had a fire in him that lit up anything he touched. He went on to be the creative spark that transformed that company’s culture, and later as a senior executive of a major entertainment company. I doubt he donned a tie even then.
It would be 20 years before Dan Pink’s book Drive made the case for autonomy, mastery and purpose being the defining qualities of the new workforce, so Bob was a man before his time. He still stands in my memory as a paragon of the qualities of people who have changed the world – large and small.
Bob comes to mind after I attended the Unpolished conference at Cincinnati’s Crossroads Church last week – perhaps the largest gathering of faith-based entrepreneurs in the world. There, author and creative consultant Todd Henry reminded everyone that the world was not changed by the polished, but by those with rough edges. Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Jobs, Ron Kovic, Rosa Parks…whatever your list is, see if they didn’t challenge conventional wisdom, authority, the status quo. And not always with a lot of polish.
The refinement we associate with “polish” has its place, but the contrarians here are not defined by their attire, but by a tectonic shift in attitude and mindset.
A lot has changed since Bob indifferently plopped his grimy boots on the desktop and imagined a world he just might help create. The traditional strengths of corporations – the ability to aggregate capital, talent and market strength – are no longer a given. There is an entire generation of workers who have grown up with a global view, who know how to connect and assemble their own virtual communities, who are accustomed to (and even insist on) making decisions and taking risks, who are drawn to organizations and ventures that offer a purpose.
The leaders who will be successful today are those who can embrace that ethos, appreciate its energy and passion, and recognize that the “unpolished” among us often are the ones who we need the most.