How to be a Contrarian Thought Leader

Journalist, writer and political commentator, Walter Lippmann, said, “When everyone thinks the same, nobody is thinking.”  

I have coached literally thousands of executives, leaders, mangers, entrepreneurs, sales people and Toastmasters on breathing life into their business presentations.

I can break down the content of their presentations into two categories:

  1. Conformity
  2. Contrarian

What is a conformist?  A conformist is a person who conforms, especially unthinkingly, to the usual practices or standards of a group or society.

So in the context of presentations, what does it mean to be a conformist?  The conformist presentation is one that conforms to the usual practices of presentations.  In terms of content you avoid controversial topics such as politics, religion, sex, sports or emotional messages.  You talk about safe subjects.

Conversely, what is a Contrarian?  A person who takes an opposing view, especially one who rejects the majority opinion.  In the context of presentation content, a contrarian embraces those topics that conformists avoid.

According to Alan Weiss, PhD, CSP and CPAE, a contrarian has the courage against the great, mediocre mainstream.  He or she views issues from an unbiased perspective.

Let’s take a look at how a conformist and a contrarian view a process.

The Conformist: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Contrarian: If it ain’t broke, improve it.

There is nothing wrong with being a conformist.  In fact, in a great deal of situations it is entirely appropriate.  In many cases, however, it’s not very interesting.

The contrarian, on the other hand, is anything but boring.  You may not agree with them, but you will listen to them if for no other reason than to argue your position.  Contrarians such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mohammad Ali, and Steven Jobs have changed the world: .

The exciting news is that you too can change your world by taking the contrarian’s approach.  In the art and skill of debate you get better by taking both sides of the issue.  The same is true in presenting.  You will get much better if you take both the conformist and the contrarian’s approach to content.  If you want to improve your presentation ability, I’m challenging you to take the contrarian’s position on your next presentation.

Let’s look at some examples of emotions that are generally thought of as negative:

  1. Fear
  2. Anger

Now we’ll view these emotions through the lens of a contrarian.

Here are some contrarian views on fear:

  1. “Harness your fear.  Use it to fire up your sensors and give you the edge to make sure you hear well, see well, act strongly, and perform well in a big moment.~Bear Grylls, Man vs. Wild star, Men’s Health- November 2011
  2. “Fear is your friend.  It is the energy to do your best.  Use it don’t fight it.”  From the book: How to Survive the Loss of a Love, by Peter McWilliams, Harold H. Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove
  3. Fear motivates us to action.  According to Executive Coach David Kaiser, PhD, “The way I see it, those of our ancestors who didn’t run away in fear when they saw a tiger running toward them simply didn’t survive to reproduce.  Fear is a call to action.”  This is taken from his blog,

Let’s look at another example.  What is the contrarian view of expressing anger through your temper?  From a young age we’ve been told to play well with others.  The contrarian says the following:  Make anger work for you.  Dr. Kaiser has a unique view on anger.  He teaches that anger gives you the energy to confront a threat, helps you to set boundaries, and show others you are serious.


How to be a contrarian: ( How to be a non-conformist)

  1. Express your opinions.  Not the thoughts of others.
  2. Stop caring what people think.  Even if it takes conscious effort at first, it gets easier over time.  This is the base and foundation of nonconformity.  Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE said the following, “The goal of a speaker is not to be liked.  The goal of a speaker is provoke thought.”
  3. Be aware that other people have different ideas.  Do not try to force them to not conform; this is fascism and is wrong (it’s also making them conform to nonconformity!).
  4. Experiment.  Learn who you are; what you like and dislike.  Many people will assert their standards, opinions, and ideals.  Think for yourself and choose the ones that seem right to you.
  5. Try a contrarian approach.  Ask why everybody does or thinks one way, and try doing or thinking the opposite way, if it has any merits.  You are bound to find out that some of your experiments don’t work; that’s OK as long as you survived them; try something else next time!


  1. You will be judged when you take the contrarian view.  Here’s a newsflash.  You are going to be judged no matter what position you take conformist or contrarian.  If you’re going to be judged, you might as well state your true opinion.
  2. Don’t be a contrarian just for the sake of being different, because you think it’s cool or it will make you stand out.  True contrarians change the world for the better.  They challenge the status quo to make things better for a cause or society.  It is not about the individual person.
  3. Being a contrarian does not mean being pushy about your own ideals.  It just means doing your own thing for your own reasons.
  4. People who choose to be conformists are not criminals.  They are only giving in to and acting out a different kind of social pressure.
  5. Being a contrarian does not justify being rude or impolite towards people.
  6. Taking the contrarian view may not serve your purpose.  Always determine your state of purpose.

In closing, I want to leave you with this thought:

Read, every day, something no one else is reading.  Think, every day, something no one else is thinking.  Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do.  It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.  ~Christopher Morley

Leave a Reply