Some people say that the nail that stands out will get hammered down. These are the people who want you to keep your head down and not make a fuss, just do your hours at your desk and then head home. These people fear being the nail that stands out, and they’ll share that fear.
But there’s another sort of nail that stands out. On proud display at Stanford University is a nail that united a nation – the Golden Spike, used to complete the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Because sometimes the nail that stands out gets hammered down, but sometimes it holds everything together.
Getting hammered down
We’ve all taken risks in our time, spoken up for the things we believe in. And we’ve all had moments when others have tried to stop us.
Maybe it’s a well-meaning colleague who doesn’t want to see you risk getting in trouble for rocking the boat, because they themselves fear facing any kind of scorn. Maybe it’s a manager who likes to have things done a certain way, and who fears what will happen if their orderly system is disrupted. Maybe it’s a superior who believes in the importance of hierarchy, and fears for their own position if everybody’s voice can be heard equally.
But in every case it’s not really about you and what’s good for you. It’s about their fears, about projecting those onto the world.
Now think about the times when you didn’t speak up, when you let your own fears guide you and so kept in what some might call ‘your place’. Think of all the hours spent on the drudgery of tasks that benefit no one, or on projects that you know in your heart of hearts are dead ends. Do you feel any better for having kept your head down, for having accepted that place? Did your McJob bring you any satisfaction?
There’s another sort of nail that stands out, and that Seth Godin has explored in his books. That’s the lynchpin, the spike that holds a whole process or organization together.
Godin has given expression to the discomfort we all felt in our guts at not allowing ourselves to be different, at keeping our heads down out of fear. He points out how, as we all instinctively knew, giving in to that fear is not the solution. It doesn’t make us safer, it makes us more disposable, just another identical nail holding down a small corner of some organization that values rusty, battered down nails over golden spikes.
Trying to knuckle down and fit in, to be the same as everyone else, was the dream spoon fed to a previous generation. That generation was given the promise of security in return – pensions, jobs for life, an end to uncertainties. That promise is gone, and we must find another way of working.
That’s the way of the lynchpin. Daring to be different, to stand up and risk being battered down, and in the process showing just how unique and invaluable you are. It’s about being the Golden Spike.
By daring to be different you can make yourself invaluable to your employers and find more satisfaction in your job. But it isn’t just about you.
Think of the effect on you of all those other people keeping their heads down and telling you to do the same. Did it inspire you to do the right thing for you, or did it just lead you to spend years working in anxious conformity? And if you continue with that conformity then what sort of example are you setting for others, for your friends, your colleagues, your children?
If we accept a life of sameness and drudgery then so will the people who take their example from us. If we excel, if we stand up, if we reach for the extraordinary then they will too.
Head held high
So how do you do this?
Start by making your voice heard. When you’re given a chance to express your opinion then do it, whether or not you think it’s what people are looking for. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results. Many leaders want to hear unusual opinions, they just aren’t used to it. If they like what they hear then they’ll come back for more, and they’ll come to you with projects worthy of the intelligence and initiative you’ve shown. If you show potential to achieve more then a good employer will make the most of you, and so give you a chance to grow.
If you’re unfortunate then maybe you will get shouted down again and again. But if that’s the case then are you really working somewhere worthy of your talents? If they don’t value your opinions enough to listen then they may not value you enough to keep you around when times get tough. So don’t waste your energy doing better for them. Move on to somewhere you can hold your head up high.
It’s scary at first, and difficult. But as you get used to voicing your opinions, showing your unique skills, being a vital part of what you do, then you’ll feel a growing sense of satisfaction. You’ll feel the weight lifted from your shoulders, even as you become vital to holding your workplace together.
Becoming the Golden Spike
Take a stand. Hold your head high and make your voice count. Make yourself a lynchpin, not just for you, but also for everyone around you.
(About the Author: Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20 plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including healthcare, education, government, and people and potential (aka HR). In addition, Mark currently serves as Chairman of the Board for Behavioral Health Service North, a large behavioral health services provider in New York. He also actively serves on the faculty of the State University of New York (SUNY) and teaches in the School of Business and Economics; Department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship and the Department of Management, International Business and Information Systems. Mark holds an MBA and is highly recognized in the technology and healthcare space with credentials including MCSE and Paramedic. Most of Mark’s writing involves theoretical considerations and practical application, academics, change leadership, and other topics at the intersection of business, society, and humanity. Mark resides in New York with his wife Lynn, two children, and two Labradors. The greatest pursuit; “To be more in the Service of Others.”)