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Friday, June 05, 2009

The boundaries of extreme behavior

Have you ever experienced the soaring, then crashing, feeling, of reaching new heights, amazing insights, and then, wham, all seems to fail?

For most of us, this kind of experience happens rarely, but I sense some push the limits more often than others.

In polite company these individuals are called eccentrics. In less-than-polite environments, they are called "nuts".

In a business or social environment, intelligent eccentrics challenge you to think differently, to stretch your limits, to try new things, and then, you want to be away from them (unless you are, yourself, a truly exceptional person).

If you can tolerate their presence, eccentric geniuses can truly challenge your assumptions and cause wonderful change. They can also blow away your clients and drive your employees and colleagues crazy. You then need to know when to ask them to leave.

I can now safely relate two examples of this dynamic at work.

In the first, in my final days in Africa, I had discovered (drum roll here please), the secret to life. I was soaring -- on top of the world -- and daring all sorts of assumptions. After one particularly wild escapade which goes down in personal memory as the night I discovered my self identity, my supervisor called me into his office and asked me, point blank, "Are you well?" He then invited me to resign, immediately.

My boss, then, of course, made the right decision. He would himself soon leave, of course, as the political and historical changes I had witnessed took real effect on the newspaper as the country morphed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.

My second example is more complex. The leader of a major business organization battled as co-defendants with my business in a lawsuit initiated by a competing publisher. Things ran their course and the judge ultimately cleared my business but not the business organization or its leader. Still, as the organization ended up having to pay a large part of my legal bills, this leader said: "Don't worry, I have another project for you in the New Year."

Then he headed down to one of the seediest parts of town, and picked up a police woman. When news about him needing to attend "John School" reached the media, the association's board of directors asked him to leave.

Certainly, in business we don't want a bunch of "yes men" who do what they are told to do and never question authority or challenge our thinking. And sometimes it is good to have eccentrics in the picture -- they really can shake up our thought processes and assumptions.

But do we need to "fire" them when they disrupt harmony or exceed social norms to such a degree that they threaten your business integrity, brand or reputation?


Sometimes this is sad, because in moderate amounts, their eccentricity helps you to be creative, to keep your balance, and to risk change.

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