Positive Deviance and Virtuousness on the Campaign Trail: What Would You Do If You Were Running for President?

By Shawn Quinn

Eight billion dollars. Some predictions say that’s how much will be spent in this year’s U.S. Presidential campaign. Eight billion dollars. Just to get the job.

I got to wondering: If they were to apply some concepts from the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), how might Mitt Romney or President Obama approach running for President differently during this election?

Let’s review two POS concepts, and then envision what one example might look like if they were to apply the principle to their campaign strategy.  As I share the concepts and one potential direction, think about what ideas come to your mind.  It would be interesting to see what we can come up with.

Positive deviance—“successful performance that dramatically exceeds the norm in a positive direction (Cameron, 2008, Positive Leadership).”  Being positively deviant requires a strong belief in going outside the norm in a way that requires personal risk but could lead to much better results.  Most “leaders” are not truly leaders because they merely manage what already exists in the organization and try not to mess things up.  A true leader takes people to a new and better place.  What would it mean for one of these two candidates to be positively deviant in his approach to being elected President and showing us he knows what it means to lead before they take over or continue as leader of our country?

Virtuousness—“a focus on the best of the human condition and that which human beings consider to be inherently good (Cameron, 2008).”  Cameron and his colleagues found during their research on downsizing that “Organizations with more virtuousness in their practices and culture recover from downsizing more quickly and perform better (Cameron, Bright, and Caza, 2004).”  This has led to further research that is starting to show that companies with more virtuous practices lead to better objective (financial performance) and perceived (i.e., employee engagement) outcomes.  In my own work I’m amazed to see that win/win situations often come from the virtuous behavior of a specific individual that draws similar behavior from all people involved and delivers a far better outcome for the organization and individuals involved (Read a short case example).

Let me share one last thought to consider before we start exploring ideas for how to implement the concepts above.  Having had a chance to work with a lot of different organizations, I’m intrigued at how often people gripe about what is not possible.  Systems, culture, leaders, and managers block them or will never let things happen.  What’s fascinating to me is that if I interview enough people I can almost always find an individual or team doing exactly what the rest of the organization doesn’t believe is possible within the same environment (positive deviance).  We get so used to “the way it’s done around here” that we lose track of what is possible.

Many people will see the idea I’m about to present and will say it’s idealistic.  That’s the exact reaction that so often blocks all of us individually, in families, in societies, and in organizations from becoming what we are capable of becoming.  I invite you to stay open to what might be helpful about the idea and share other potential ideas.  Let’s stay focused on what might be possible.

If I were to try to apply positive deviance and virtuousness to a Presidential campaign, I might try to persuade people to essentially fund an audition: To donate their money to a group that will put in place some of the programs I as President am advocating. The organization would be set up and organized by those who will play important economic roles in my administration.  These folks could be asked to guide a group of leaders they hire to use the billions of donated funds in different ways—ways, for example, that will start to create U.S. jobs or build the foundation for creating jobs.  A percentage of donations would be used for critical tasks such as traveling regionally to meet with relevant groups and pursuing public relations opportunities focused on educating about my vision and approach.  Ultimately, the press would do their advertising for them (and ultimately my campaigning). The clear message would be that the candidate or incumbent wanted to show America what he wanted to do as President rather than just talk about it.

Obama or Romney could go and find people in the swing states that could help implement the plan by distributing the money and creating jobs. They could invite people from these states to sit in and listen to the meetings.  They could invite them to ask questions at different points in the meeting so the leaders could help people understand what they were deciding and why and how they believed it would have impact on the economy.  They could then let the press ask these people questions and to talk to the groups the money is invested in, and the citizens who receive training and help. It would be so much more than a campaign promise; it would be proof.

Ideas are everywhere. Put those billions into play in a properly executed and effective job creation (or other) program, and President Obama and Mitt Romney would be able to offer proof of how their solution worked rather than theoeries about why it might.

Think of the millions of jobs that could be created with this type of platform and support. And think about the strategy: But they wouldn’t merely be creating other people’s jobs with that money. With such huge success to point to, one or the other of them would easily secure the job they desire for themselves in the process.

Independents and those leaning to the middle already know most of the policies and other ideas the two candidates support.  What will tip the balance? What would add that measure of confidence that turns awareness during the campaign into support at the polls?

Whatever your political party is, I already know you want to create more jobs in this country. Give me more than a promise. How about being job creator now? That would surely draw my vote.

How might you advise President Obama or Mitt Romney to go about running for President through applying positive deviance and virtuousness to their approach?