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Every business leader preaches the importance of innovation and outperforming the competition, yet business managers are busy squeezing every threatening and/or unconventional element out of their environment.

An Ode to Difficult Geniuses

13 September 2007

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Dale Dauten’s most recent column should be required business reading. Of course, that’s sort of a teasing thing to say, because I can’t find an electronic link to it anywhere. The title is “Let Us All Praise the Quirky, Weird Ones,” and it starts with a quote by William James that says “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” You could go in a lot of directions with that quote, but where Dauten goes is to the sad reality that business managers these days would prefer to employ safe, average, presumably less imaginative sorts than unruly, challenging, wildly intelligent sorts.
After describing how business managers fear and dislike people who are challenging, a little un-PC (it’s amazing how damaging one little acronym can be, isn’t it?), perhaps prone to scandal on the personal (not the work) side (i.e., “lacking a certain decorum”), difficult to manage, or even egotistical, he says “not only would you fire Winston Churchill, you couldn’t hire John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. or Pablo Picasso. Instead, you can staff up with the corporate equivalents of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and a pair of Bushes. How did we get to be so small?”
Indeed. Every business leader preaches the importance of innovation and outperforming the competition, yet business managers are busy squeezing every threatening and/or unconventional element out of their environment. The only possible result is the lowest common denominator, which clearly won’t achieve innovation and competitive wins.
I think we are all guilty of this at some time or another. The column caused me to look back over all my years of hiring and firing, and I can think of two specific cases where the difficulty of managing someone won out over their significant creativity with questionable resulting benefit.
On the other hand, there is no question that my most creative experiences at work have been while surrounded with very quirky people. The graphic designer whose psychological insights into others was acute even as he was a complete socio/psychological mess himself; the sarcastic but intensely effective professional who was repeatedly accused of egotism when he really was smarter than everyone else and if I couldn’t help but notice it surely he was aware of it as well; the completely adolescent, self-absorbed writer who could make business writing sound like poetry; the zen-y assistant who repeatedly came from so far in left field that he frequently took the rest of the group on a detour that invariably introduced creativity we never would have stumbled on without him; the cross-dressing analyst who regularly forgot to get all his mascara off before coming to work in the morning, and who freaked out the men around him by flirting with them just like they flirted with all the women in the office; the nuts-o marketer who spoke incomprehensibly fast and always had a personal crisis going on, but who could produce flashes of insight three or four times a year that paid for herself and everyone else in her department four times over; designers who could only work in the wee hours of the night and had to be cajoled into considering another viewpoint; and . . . my experience tells me that the sheer fun and creativity of working with people of superior talent and intelligence is well worth their eccentricities.
Years ago when I was in advertising, an art director, aware that I was frustrated trying to manage a group of what seemed to be overbred, tightly wound creative types, told me that I had to learn how to “ride the white elephant.” He explained that white elephants were believed to be as royal as kings, and moreover, they knew they were as royal as kings. So you couldn’t manage them like regular elephants, because they would refuse to participate. If you wanted to associate yourself with a thing of wonder, you had to accept that you weren’t going to be able to make all the rules. He taught me that I had to learn how to make the rules and not get run over (we did have a business to run) while learning how to accept that sometimes they made their own rules, and most important, how to offer them as much in value as I expected to get from them.
Is it a double-standard that I would never advocate keeping egotistical, difficult, surly, or eccentric people who are NOT smarter, more creative, more productive than everybody else? Maybe, but common sense says, why would you? 
In a very funny passage regarding a friend’s sexual deviation and her own mother’s response to it, Dauten share’s the mother’s advice, which was “Unusual people have unusual tastes.”  He ends by saying this:
“Whenever I’m tempted to be narrow-minded or judgmental, I think of that little sentence, “Unusual people have unusual tastes,” shrug, and mind my own business. I can only hope that there are executives who’ll do likewise, that they’ll keep eccentric geniuses on the payroll, despite the trouble they cause. Let’s broaden that maternal advice to this business wisdom: If you want unusual ideas, you’re going to have to put up with unusual people.”

(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill