NON-CONFORMITY: A Leadership adaptation

Inventions, innovations and improvisations are very important for mankind be it any field. Why, because if we didn’t we would still be living a primitive life and have to hunt for our food as against it being made logistically convenient for us today. We would also succumb to the first acquired disease or health condition be it common cold or kidney stone and also make do with rudimentary entertainment as against the plethora of choices available. Inventions and innovations elicit human potential to progressive levels of experience.

There are enough communities in the world who are content to live without such requisites but testing the human mind, knowing what it is capable of achieving and how it changes the way we live, act, move, share, communicate and experience is always invigorating. Besides we are a darned curious lot hence just can’t sit still with the abundant intelligence we have been endowed with. Leaving the world by making it a better place than how we found it is a good cause. Inventions and innovation will happen with absolute certitude and at quicker pace than attained in the past. To create these inventions and innovations in a world that is changing in discernible ways, conventional methods of thinking are inadequate. It needs deviation from traditional path, simultaneity of ideas, and damnation of erstwhile perceptions. For this to happen, one needs to explore atypical thoughts and ignite imagination. In short bear hug nonconformity.



Non-conformity is one of the apertures to creativity and invention. Non-conformity is the unwillingness to conform to well-established customs, conventions, practices, attitudes, formulations, beliefs or ideas. When most seem to be going in one direction, it feels exhilarating when one takes a divergent path but just for the sake of differentiation if this path is embraced it may technically fit the rubric of ‘nonconformity’ but isn’t quite it. The path selection or attempt to deviate has to have some logic, level of faith, conviction, purpose  and then it can be a meaningful one. From an existential point of view only that meaning exists which one attaches to life hence any path divergent from the masses, for the path-changer regardless of whether it has a higher purpose or not,  in essence is also nonconformity but regardless of these philosophical inclinations the chief message is that a mission to invent and innovate with a deliberate purpose taps human intelligence a tad better than accidental inventions or innovations. The art of creating with premeditated intent has excitability about it.



All scientific inventions are either a result of non-conformist thinking e.g. electricity, IC engines, Paper, Aero plane, Automobile, Telephone etc. or serendipitous discoveries with examples such as  Penicillin, Post it notes, X-Ray, Corn flakes, Pacemaker, Microwave Oven and hordes of others. Scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, Tesla, Einstein, Edison, Marie Curie, Sir Alexander Fleming, and others have been credited with many accolades for their inventions, discoveries and innovations but their formative education and the foundational aspects that they built into their knowledge framework is built by sturdy conformity to certain theorems, hypothesis, mathematics, physics and pertinent tenets of science and other subjects. Whist upon their respective endeavour they got a spark, chose a nonconformist path to experiment and remained persistent upon it which eventuated in sensational inventions that we enjoy today.


Groucho Marx, Buddha, Gandhi, Mother Teresa from non business world as well as Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Richard Branson (Virgin), Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn), Mark Parker (NIKE) from the business world all were/are non-conformists in their respective areas. Non-conformists need not be deified or perceived with excessive extolment, it is another attitude. Doesn’t make the achievements of conformists with a disciplined and systematic approach less significant. One cannot succeed merely by embracing non-conformity all the time. It has to be a hybrid model of conformity and nonconformity. An innovation team with nonconformist creative people alone is bound to fail. It needs conformists to execute those ideas that need to fructify into terrific products. Military personnel of any country have necessarily got to be trained to fit a lifestyle of inordinate discipline, unquestioned faith, belief in orders, acquiescence to rank & hierarchy etc. After initial drill, training or call it indoctrination, all of which can be categorized as ‘conformity based behavioural induction’, as one gets into strategic roles we see risk taking interspersed with nonconformity w.r.t war scenarios. These days in defense organizations, the drill and ‘fencing in’ is so pronounced that most key decisions happen with multiple checks, such is the system conformity sought. This may be apt for defense as the cause is gargantuan with dire implications hence need multiple checks but this form of regimentation in thinking is precisely what needs to be avoided by top leaders running modern organizations. It is a leadership mandate to create the proper mixture of nonconformists vs. conformists whilst forming teams whose mission is to seek innovation. Can one survive as a non-conformist, well people need to belong to some community hence throughout life it will be a concoction of conformity and nonconformity.



Risk taking is an important trait noticed in non-conformists. Young people have tremendous need to be non-conformists, do something distinctive, create alarmist fashion sense, hair cuts, tattoos, substance use, experiment with heavy metal music with its amplified distortions, macho image and aggression. Actually that remark is a bit unfair on youth, there are young people pursuing excellence, education, accomplishment and the likes but we are attempting to address that segment of youth bereft of such traits. Coming back to the music example, out of this non-conformism emerged hugely successful bands with their audacious lifestyle, which in turn fuelled a legion of followers. The genesis of music from the gentle blues, jazz and country categories to the more rock, heavy metal, progressive trance and death metal convey the story of nonconformity and the lyrics insinuate anti-establishment sentiment in someway. Whether there was a purpose to this transition or it began as a much awaited outlet to repression or a need to be perceived differently, is conjecture.

Just being anti establishment or rebelling against a corporate idea or system doesn’t make one a non-conformist. It is a puerile representation and hankering for attention. Non conformity is segregated into two categories . Criminals are non-conformists. They don’t obey societal laws and often infringe upon it. This is negative non-conformity but in a corporate parlance non-conformity denotes a radical different idea, creativity etc. that is positive non-conformity. How does one become a non-conformist; stop caring about what people think all the time, experiment with life, challenge every belief that you nurse, stretch boundaries, seek constant change in everything that you do, be well read, skillful, informative and knowledgeable in order to do something with the nonconformity.


Theodore Roosevelt whilst on a hunting expedition in Brazil in 1913 by the river Amazon witnessed piranhas attack a cow with shocking ferocity and after a while the skeleton of the cow floated to the surface. Some organizations may be filled with people who stretch the credibility of any idea akin to the ferocious piranhas and strip most ideas of its nutriment before even it is fully represented thereby compelled to remain in conformity. They don’t notice the impediment; it is their years of practice and subconscious behaviour due to lack of awareness and then the firm wonders why they are out of business. Encourage nonconformity and make it useful to the company and the society as against merely a behavioural manifestation.


To  delve a little into conformity let us  seek technical help from Leon Mann (1969) and Herbert Kelman (1958). Mann stated, “The essence of conformity is yielding to group pressure”. He identified three types of conformity:

  1. Normative,
  2. Informational
  3. Ingratiational

Herbert Kelman distinguished between three different types of conformity:

  1. Compliance,
  2. Internalization
  3. Identification

 Let us understand these and its intertwined tenets.

  1. Normative Conformity :

Yielding to group pressure because a person wants to fit in with the group or conforming because the person is scared of being rejected by the group. This type of conformity usually involves Compliance – where a person publicly accepts the views of a group but privately rejects them. Childhood groups leading to groupism and bullying is a common example. During Nazi regime there were many Germans who didn’t subscribe to the Nazi propaganda but had to comply due to scare of being an outcast.

  1. Informational Conformity :

This usually occurs when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the group for guidance or when a person is in an unclear situation and socially compares their behavior with the group. This type of conformity usually involves Internalization – publicly changing behaviour to fit in with the group and also agreeing with them privately as well as acceptance of the views of the groups and adopting them as an individual. Most learning happens this way be it academics or these days online. One is open and malleable to external inputs and internalizes the information. At an unconscious level even a child learns this way as the child construes that parents possess more knowledge than themselves. Group therapy also works this way.

  1. Ingratiational Conformity :

 Where a person conforms to impress or gain favor/acceptance from other people. It is similar to normative influence but is motivated by the need for social rewards rather than the threat of rejection, i.e., group pressure does not enter the decision to conform. Students being nice to teachers and the ever green corporate ingratiation to gain favours from the boss are classic examples.

 Identification is conforming to the expectations of a social role. It is similar to compliance, but there is no mandatory need to have a change in private opinion.


shutterstock_208704058Most of us oscillate between these types of conformity listed above and strictly speaking all of us are conditioned from childhood hence we grew with conformity. A 7-year old child is neither powerful to abandon his rituals, beliefs, religion, education etc. nor has the awareness as to what precisely he needs to pursue incase he manages to liberate himself from conditioning. What are the chances his new environment is devoid of conditioning? Once we attain cognitive awareness about the world around us as well as understand the existence of choices we are in a position to slowly experiment with life and abandon conformity in seeking a career or any aspect of our life. A 7-year old can’t but a 17-year-old can seek non-conformity. With reasonable approximation one can say that traces of nonconformity brews from the age of 17 to 22 depending on nation to nation and various societies within each nation.

Often we hear the cliché ‘ When we were young, we could take more risks’ but this is untrue. Risk taking is not just an age phenomenon. It is a product of conditioning in which the predominant facilitator is societal acceptance of failures in case of misadventure of an enterprise or idea. America encourages it and their society is forgiving hence free enterprise flourishes with splendour there. Chapter 11 rescue and reformation exist, as a way for people to bounce back from bankruptcy hence the society is more risk prone and entrepreneurial.  It is suspending adventure, remaining disenfranchised from risk taking and sticking with conformity throughout life that alienates people from possibilities. From a leadership perspective, such behaviour has to be discouraged and the effectiveness with which this can be achieved depends on the risk taking quotient of the leadership teams and the firm as a whole. Encourage risk taking and nonconformity; not the Marc Marquez MotoGP kind of risks but a little less daring, a little less frequent but a tad more informed ones. As Dr. Robert Anthony puts it “The opposite of bravery is not cowardice but conformity.”

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