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Vitiligo is a skin disorder where patches of colored skin lose pigment and turn white. This cosmetic condition is physically harmless yet can cause “spotted” persons to stand out from the crowd. I’ve had vitiligo since I was 12. Beginning as a small spot on the side of my mouth, my mother thought I had forgotten to wipe away toothpaste. Now, at age 43, 35% of my body has lost pigment in various patches across my arms, legs and back.
Most would think of this condition as disfiguring, socially debilitating and, quite honestly, depressing. Yet my success today has been guided by a journey to gracefully be different. Below are four reasons why standing out has led me to stand up as a stronger leader.
1. It’s okay to feel lonely
Growing up, I did not know another soul that looked like me. It was clear that people would talk about me behind my back as well as immediately consider me an outsider as soon as an introduction was made. The feeling of being distant and subconsciously left out, even by the most well-intentioned of people, became a normal feeling through my adolescent and young adult years.
Yet, today, we often hear leaders say, “It’s lonely at the top.” What they mean is that they struggle to find true personal connections to the people around them. This is because there is an inherent power imbalance created when a person is responsible for another person’s livelihood. How can someone generate real and meaningful human connection when their paycheck is at stake?
People who are different, and who have been different for a while, can empathize.
Great leaders, therefore, learn to be comfortable in the discomfort of feeling lonely. And for those who stand out, they’ve had years of preparation for exactly this experience.
2. The ability to cast vision can make or break you
The “looking-glass self” is a concept developed by Charles H. Cooley positing that humans see themselves as we think others see us and act accordingly to make sense of it all. In short, our identity is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on what we think others think. Relatedly, Audre Lorde says: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
I learned this while I was pursuing my Ph.D. in social psychology and it was, to say the least, illuminating and inspiring.
Being different can teach future leaders how to not be eaten alive and how to not let what they think others think of them become a reality, reified with action. People who are different can make it their choice to define who they want to be and to cast a compelling vision of their authentic selves to others.
Importantly, for those that do make this choice, practicing the skill of casting vision among friends and family, and constantly navigating one’s sense of belonging in groups, gifts them a refined leadership presence, boldness, vision and exceptional communication skills that peers will not develop until much later in life — if they develop at all.
3. Emotional intelligence is a muscle you must develop
Wanting so badly to feel a sense of belonging, while being different, can play tricks on one’s mind. Throughout my life, I have learned to notice the slightest non-verbal cue, the smallest of voice intonation, subtle posture switches, a tiny fidget or a minute change in eye direction to understand a person and to know where I stood with them and their judgments.
The goal for those of us who are “different” is to assimilate our way into belonging and to avoid situations where we do not.
Yet mastering the skill of quickly, precisely and, at first sight, knowing what people are thinking and “where they are” in their mind’s eye can be useful in inspiring ways. This skill allows those of us that have “stood out” for significant periods of time to know exactly how to encourage others to reach their potential, how to model ways to engage with team members, as well as how to authentically earn trust and support with direct reports, customers and other important players on our leadership journies.
4. To lead well, you must be a lifelong learner
Rick Warren once said, “All leaders are learners. The moment you stop learning, you stop leading.” Indeed, an intense curiosity about people and the things around oneself is required to lead well. We all know that one grows by staying the same. Leaders must scan all ideas, topics and environments, different from their own, to forge connections, stir up creativity and build momentum in the marketplace.
Standing out with a skin disorder like vitiligo has made me so very curious about the world around me that I turned myself into a lifelong learner. Adding this to the other life lessons gained along the way, I’m grateful to have stood out so that I could stand up as a stronger leader. My hope is that you are, too.