The following article is lesson #5 in lessons I have learned along the way…
More than two decades ago, I met an accountant who had a slightly different twist on the phrase “Dare to be different.” Wally Owings was serving as a National Vice President of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce from Virginia assigned to my home state of South Carolina. Owings met with the local presidents and state officers from South Carolina’s largest young people’s organization and encouraged us to get out of our comfort zones.
Nearly all of us were familiar with “thinking outside of the box” but Wally took it the extreme. He said as leaders we were all likely comfortable with leadership and daring to be different. But it wasn’t enough to be different – we had to dare to be strange. You cannot be afraid of having people think you are odd or peculiar if you’re going to push people past limitations they impose on themselves, often accepting the status quo.
Owings shared a story he had read about Walt Disney when Disney was a young fifth grader. The teacher assigned students in his classroom to color a flower garden. As the teacher walked down the rows observing all the students carefully coloring in the lines with bright bold colors, she stopped by young Walt’s desk. The teacher noted that all his drawings were quite unusual – actually strange. Picking up one of his drawings, she remarked, “Walt, your picture is all wrong. Flowers don’t have faces on them.”Walt looked back at the teacher and confidently said, “Mine do!” and continued busily finishing his task. Have you been to Disneyland or Walt Disney World lately? If you have, you’ll see all the flowers still have faces.
This past January we recognized former Cornelius Mayor Nannie Potts with the Chamber Diversity Council’s first Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the community and region bringing people of all races and backgrounds together. Ms. Potts, an African-American, participated in the sit-ins at the Woolworth Department Store in Statesville, similar to those taking place during the civil rights struggle of the early 1960’s.
The actions of those engaged citizens were looked at by some as more than strange, in their view it was an act of defiance. However, Potts and those that joined her that day saw a wrong and they attempted to right it. Leadership is getting people from where they are to where they have not been. According to, Owings, “It’s often doing the scary and uncomfortable. We worry too much about what others think but they are not prepared to go where we are moving. Leadership is lonely by definition.” Wally summed it up to us young business leaders two decades ago, “You just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable – that’s as strange as it gets.”
Some people saw the actions of Wally Owings, Nannie Potts and Walt Disney as strange. However, they saw the world around them and did more than dare to be different. They pushed the envelope, dared to see the world differently than it was, and accepted nothing less than their very best.