Violent Femmes on Becoming a Unique Leader

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In leadership development, we often talk about the benefits of modeling others’ behaviors. “Find other leaders who are inspirational,” we say, “and try to be more like them.” This is solid advice…to a point. Mimicking can help us learn new skills and find what works for us, but there comes a time when we need to decide whether we want to stand out or blend in. Cue the Violent Femmes.

One of the best bands ever (hope I’m not understating this point), Violent Femmes came into prominence in the early 1980s with their now-classic debut album. Such songs as “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up,” and “American Music” are part of our shared musical psyche. When I speak with a fellow Femmes fan, most don’t remember their first time hearing the band; instead, they mention the timeless nature of the Femmes’ that is both current and interestingly nostalgic. If you think this is an accident, think again.

In a recent interview, Brian Ritchie, the Femmes’ bassist, discussed how the band created its signature sound.

It’s interesting that you bring up the longevity of the music. We did do that by design… We tried not to sound like our contemporaries and we didn’t even try to sound like the stuff from the past. We tried to create something that could have been recorded prior to that; it could be recorded in the future… We tried to stay away from anything that indicated, ‘this is from 1982’ or ‘this is part of a scene’… It’s that that has enabled young people to keep getting into it over and over again without thinking they are getting into something retro.

How many bands (and leaders) take a similar approach? Most, it seems, are trying to recreate the successes of their colleagues. Yet the colleagues they are imitating, are being imitated because they did/are something original, something unique.

In the beginning of this article I asked whether you want to stand out or blend in. Maybe the better question is whether you want to emulate or be emulated. If you choose the latter, as the Violent Femmes have, you will garner the advantages that accompany being distinctive. Please note, I call these “advantages,” not “sure signs of success.” Being unique does not guarantee a victory, but when done right, it will give you the opportunity to be more authentic, more creative, more respected, and more satisfied with the decisions you’ve made.

The path to originality is not all that original. It’s a simple mix of genuineness, humility, and entrepreneurship. To get you there, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t seek popularity. Focus on making an impact. With time, your efforts will be noticed and you’re earn the recognition you deserve.
  • Be constructively disruptive. Being unique means you don’t just accept the status quo. You push and question and insert yourself so everyone embraces a culture of constant improvement.
  • Become a change agent. When trying to be original, there’s no place for fear of the unknown. If you aren’t willing to take on the risk of a pioneer, you aren’t interested in being unique.
  • Be friendly. This may seem like an odd suggestion, but to be accepted as unique, you need a reputation as someone who is approachable. There are anomalies to this rule, albeit rare. Try being friendly in a unique way – don’t discuss common issues, avoid mindless chit chat, and have conversations with substance.

Original leaders set the standards by which others compare themselves. They do not do this for the pure sake of being different; they do it because they have confidence in who they are and a drive to improve their surroundings. Does it involve courage, maybe some, but greatness is not doled out to the meek. This might explain why they aren’t called the Docile Femmes.

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