Creative Leadership – What is Normal?


I was watching TV recently and Francesca Martinez was a guest on The Jonathan Ross show. Francesca Martinez is a comedienne with cerebral palsy but prefers to describe herself as “wobbly”, that works for me. During the interview, Francesca was asked about ‘normal’ in relation to her own experiences growing up. She replies asking ‘what is normal?’, and puts forward a view that if you are normal, or more likely if you think you are normal, then you are in fact, a freak.

Normal is a Trap

I think Francesca’s onto something here, and because she has combined normal with freak, this feels like a good time to let Joe Gerstandt, Freak Flag Flyer par excellence, have his say on the subject:

Normal at Work

The desire to conform at work bothers me. Sure – we probably need to operate within certain parameters, for example I’m a big fan of open, respectful disagreement in the workplace, but when that overheats and turns into punching your coworker in the face, for most people that crosses a line. Regardless of the urge you may have to punch said coworker in the face, thankfully we mostly acknowledge that such extreme action sits outside of normal working practice.

We often observe a drive towards ‘normal’ around performance review time. For example, when I worked at BT we used a five point performance scale to measure people, where 1 was ‘Outstanding’ through to a 5 which signalled ‘Needs Improvement’, or to give it the full title as one of my mangers once referred to it, ‘Needs Improvement means you’re shit and should be fired’. Except we didn’t use the full scale. The unwritten rule was that ‘no one gets a 1, and no one gets a 5’, and so, surprise surprise, people tended to aim for the middle ground, a number 3, or a ‘Good’. As if to reinforce this behaviour, when I worked in sales I lost count of the number of times I and others had bonus payment capped as stories circulated about the need to help some of the poorer performers over the line. The timing of these bonus ‘normalising’ conversations were always after you’d delivered your numbers, and protests were pointless.

More worryingly though – this culture of ‘normal’ drives most people towards….’normal’. I mean – what is the point of aiming for the stars if somewhere in the psyche of the organisation it is written that no one can get there? I moved twice in the organisation to try and shake off this uninspired approach and in the end, it took the appointment of a new director to shake things up.

Art is not Normal

Lichtenstein is in town. If you live in London you probably knew that already, because Roy Lichtenstein’s work stands out. For those familiar with his art, it is (for the most part) instantly associated with his name, and for those who don’t know his name, when you see his work you will likely go, ‘Yep – I’ve seen this guy’s stuff before’, or words to that effect. It is distinctive.

The world of art abhors normal, art is subjective and simultaneously provokes one or more emotions including and not limited to love, hate, admiration and loathing, depending on your point of view. And that diversity is part of what gets us to the creativity and collaboration that so many executives implore their staff to deliver, while all the time driving them towards ‘normal’ through their behaviour, work practice and reward systems.

I clearly could have picked any artist to illustrate this point but seeing as his work is currently being exhibited at the Tate Modern I chose Lichtenstein. Incidentally, if anyone would like to visit the exhibition as my guest, I’ll be going along again on the 1st and the 8th May at around 3.30pm. Feel free to get in touch if you would like to come along, first come first served.

Creative Leadership – Making Work Better

I believe we need to think more critically about how the world of art can help the world of work. If you believe that too and you’d like to explore pathways to creativity and collaboration, I’ve packaged up some of the work I do with clients to enable improved effectiveness into a one day Creative Leadership workshop. There’s one running in May, another in July and a third in September, grab a place now through the links above, there are discounts available for early bookers. Hope to see you soon.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

One thought on “Creative Leadership – What is Normal?”

  1. Hi folks – just to let you know the visit to the Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern on May 8th has been taken. If you want the one on May 1st, please let me know.

    Cheers – Doug

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