Excellence as Deviance


Here is my happy thought for the day, courtesy of business professor Robert Quinn. This is from his very insightful Deep Change, which I highly to commend to everyone regardless of your calling or profession, or role in leadership.

“It seems to me that you have to be clear about something.  Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norm, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust to try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norm. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others.” (176)

Though Quinn writes for a business audience, his findings about “deep change” (as opposed to quick change or incremental change) are important for anyone who, on an individual or organizational level, seeks change.  To seek meaningful, deep change, leaders must accept the pain and challenge of deviance, the disdain of the system, and the endless efforts to stifle creativity and difference.

Interestingly, I think the Christian could also substitute the word “holiness” for “excellence” in the above quote, and it would equally hold true.  What say you?

3 thoughts on “Excellence as Deviance”

  1. There’s definitely a truthiness to this. I’m not sure what the analog to systems is when discussing holiness, as I’m not sure what we would say opposes holiness. But I do think it would hold true.

    1. John, judging by your use of Jon Stewart’s dictionary, I’m guessing you aren’t entirely convinced. It really is a good read, though; that chapter focuses on excellence but much of it is more about the change process in the leader and the organization. I just happened to like that quote.

      For the holiness comparison, my thought was that, in the same way one’s “system” will work to subvert excellence, so “the world” mitigates against holiness in every conceivable way. In the same way that excellence denotes a deviance from the norm, so too does holiness. Here I think of John Wesley’s distinction between the Christian and the Almost Christian.

      1. That’s what I get for trying to be funny without checking the definition first.

        I actually just meant the first half of the truthiness definition “it feels true.” What you’ve posted is something that does feel true, especially in regards to holiness. I just didn’t have the evidence to back it up. I like the Almost Christian tie-in. I think that fits.

        By the way, it’s Stephen Colbert, not Jon Stewart.

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