When things aren’t what they seem

  • Published
  • By Col. John E. Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
When we think of the term deviance, it's unlikely many good things come to mind. In fact, we often associate the term with such phrases as atypical, irregular or unusual. By definition, deviance is to differ from a norm, especially from accepted social standards. People who are deviants are viewed as abnormal. They follow the beat of a different drummer, choosing a path few others select. To most of us, they are not people we'd associate with much less aspire to having as a sibling, spouse, close friend, associate or boss. However, there's another side to deviance. One that's not so dark. One that Second-Mile Leaders intentionally embrace as part of their desire to bring out the best in those placed in their care.

Hard to believe you say?

Then keep reading.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin was the head of the Save the Children program in the Philippines. Save the Children is a U.S. based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) committed to providing care to children in the developing world. Sternin and his wife, Monique, were asked by Save the Children to move to Hanoi and lead efforts to open the program in Vietnam. At this time, relations with Vietnam were difficult as the wounds of the earlier Vietnam conflict still ran deep. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the country was on the U.S. State Department list of non-desirables and a long-standing trade embargo effectively alienated the Vietnamese government from any U.S. initiative, whether private or public. Nonetheless, the need was compelling as between 60 and 70 percent of all Vietnamese children under the age of five suffered from malnutrition to some degree. Several traditional developmental remedies had been attempted, but were only successful in providing short-term relief.

Given the fact that the Vietnamese government did not have the resources to solve a problem of this magnitude, they granted the Sternins a six-month visa to prove their worth in solving what seemed to be an impossible problem. The Sternins immediately set out to search for an existing solution or develop one of their own that could positively affect the malnutrition issues the Vietnamese children were facing. Leveraging their earlier work in the Far East and knowledge of the field of nutrition, they began experimenting with an improbable approach.

One sought to bring about positive change by intentionally departing from expected norms in honorable ways.

The Transformative Power of Positive Deviance

In the early to mid 1980's, investigators at the Tufts School of Nutrition, and most notably Dr. Marian Zeitlin, discovered in study after study that some malnourished children were able to be rehabilitated more quickly than others receiving the same treatment in the same clinical facility. The researchers identified the factors that led to these better outcomes and labeled the more successful children "positive deviants."
Although the research was documented and a language for the approach had been coined, a practical and programmatic methodology was not available. However, the Sternins set out to change this reality and put the theory to a live test in the Quong Xuong District in then Hoa province some four hours south of Hanoi.

What the Sternins subsequently applied in practice led them to confirm that in every community there exists a number of "positive deviants whose special practices or behaviors enable them to outperform or find a better solution to a problem than his neighbor [or cohort] who has access to the same resources." In effect, the Sternins were able to transform the seemingly hopeless situation at hand by helping the community find those positive deviants from within their own ranks who were employing sound strategies to combat malnutrition. Using successful parents as teachers and coaches to model the desired positive behaviors to community members, they leveraged what was already working to solve a pressing need.

Quite unexpectedly, the concept of applied positive deviance was proven valid in the villages of Vietnam out of the desperate attempt to improve the lives of impoverished villagers and their children.

What's important to understand from this illustration is that the formal leaders, in this case, Jerry and Monique Sternin, were willing to take a step back and allow those most suited in the community to take over in directing the effort at hand. In effect, they chose to empower and encourage followers to become leaders themselves. A lasting reminder of how leadership that seeks to build on the positive elements already present in those entrusted to their care enable organizations and individuals to achieve their highest potential, together.

Choosing the Path Less Traveled

Admittedly, pursuing such an other-centric approach does not come naturally as leaders get paid to make decisions and direct the efforts of those placed in their charge. It also requires they freely surrender their ego and loosen the reigns of organizational control. Neither of which are characteristics often associated with established ideals of management and leadership. Nonetheless, the lesson of positive deviance is hard to walk away from. And, no one ever said that choosing to go the second-mile in order to best serve others was easy.

What selfless leaders such as the Sternins teach us then is what can be accomplished when people seek innovative ways to facilitate extraordinarily positive individuals and organizational performance. Their example is a reminder of what can be achieved when leaders focus on building on strengths and capabilities, their own and others, to transform the seemingly impossible into the possible. Leaders who are willing to sacrifice self-interest in order to purposely subordinate themselves to the mission, to the people who carry out that mission as well as those served by the mission. So much so that as of today the lives of more than 50,000 children in 250 communities across Vietnam have been transformed because of their efforts.

And it all started because two leaders had the courage to pursue a path that was abnormal, atypical, irregular and unusual. Intentionally following the beat of a different drummer in order to bring out the best in those around them and in the process, changing the way we interpret the term deviance forever.

Leaders who, by the example of their lives teach us that sometimes, things aren't what they seem, and that's ok.

Final Thoughts 

Think of all the things that are not what they seem. A firefly is not a fly, it is a beetle; India ink is not from India, it's from China and Egypt; a guinea pig is not from Guinea and it's not a pig, it's a rodent from South America; a shooting star is not a star, it's a meteorite; a funny bone is not a bone, but rather the spot where the ulnar nerve touches the humerus; chop suey is not a native Chinese dish, it was invented by Chinese immigrants in California; a banana tree is not a tree, but an herb; a Mexican jumping bean is not a bean, it's a seed with a larva inside. And a deviant is not necessarily someone who's bad, but rather, can be a force for good as we see in the story of the Sternins working to save the children of Vietnam by being positive deviants themselves. 

Leaders who chose to intentionally depart from expected norms in honorable ways.
In this same vein, Second-Mile Leaders then are positive deviants who choose to take a genuine interest in the welfare of others. Each of these words is loaded, reflecting a commitment by the leader to being a positive force for good in their homes, workplaces, worship spaces and communities. Leaders who affirm those placed in their care by leveraging what I term the Power of the Positive to unleash the wealth of potential resident in people and organizations. 

It's the kind of power that makes the impossible possible. And it's at the heart of understanding what motivates Second-Mile Leaders to take the path less traveled. A path that sets them on a course to intentionally depart from expected norms in honorable ways so they can produce life-giving, flourishing outcomes in the lives of those entrusted to their care. 

Not because they have to, but because they choose to. 

Simply because that's what Second-Mile Leaders do.