How to Lead When You Are An Outlier

I have an amazing conversation with Lousiana prosecutor Daphne Robinson on the podcast this week. We talked about how her concern for kids caught up in the criminal justice system led her to pursue alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.

Keep reading for 4 tips to move from outlier to influencer, inspired by that conversation. You can also hear the episode for yourself here

About Daphne Robinson

In her 20 years of working as an assistant DA within Louisiana’s juvenile justice system, Daphne saw the system failing to protect kids -- kids who were committing crimes, and kids who were victims of crime. She got her masters in public health, founded a nonprofit called, “The Center for Public Health and Justice,” and started her work to bring a concern for every child to the criminal justice system.

3 Lessons from the Lab

Have you ever felt like an outlier?

It’s being the only person who seems ready to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The only person who sees that something isn’t right. Or who sees that something more is possible.

And sometimes, when the stars align, our unexpected insights are welcomed. And at times they are met with skepticism or even hostility. Sometimes that kind of pushback means we’re off track, and we need to course-correct.

But what is often far more difficult is leaning into those times when pushback is a sign that we’ve hit on something that's true.

So being an outlier can be a hard and lonely place to be. But it can also be full of potential. Because change often begins by simply naming the reality that is in front of us, and insisting that something more is possible.

Take Daphne’s experience of being an outlier, which began when she kept seeing that the people walking into courtrooms in her parish, in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits, were African-American men.

And though everyone else sees the same thing, it takes courage to be the one to ask, “what is really going on here?”

In her words:

“You have to recognize that I am an outlier in the system. And I'm an outlier because, number one, I have this desire to be empathetic and to see the side of those who are charged with crime, as well as those who are the victims of crime.

“And an outlier in the sense of, I have had the privilege of gaining all of this knowledge as it relates to public health and the connection between public health and safe communities....Sometimes I think people around me are looking at me like, ‘there she goes with that public health talk again.’

“...And I've made it my mission now, in starting the Center for Public Health and Justice, and becoming a voice for great programs that I've seen… to do the work that needs to be done.”

Here are a few tips -- inspired by Daphne’s story -- on how to navigate the journey from outlier to influencer.

>> LESSON 1: Find and connect with like-minded people <<

One of the first things Daphne began to do was look for allies. This included connecting with people within the legal system, as well as going beyond it to connect with people in public health. And in her search, she found those who were asking the same kinds of questions she was asking.

By doing this, you do two things:

  • You give yourself a way to build confidence, to know that you are not alone, you are not making things up, that there are others that believe something more is possible.

  • You move into conversation with like-minded people, and discover and practice a language that helps you describe what you are seeing, and the path you see forward, in new ways.

And that leads to lesson 2.

>> LESSON 2: Learn and introduce new language that helps you describe the possibilities you pointing to <<

Inside the world of lawyers, trials, and prison sentences, public safety is viewed through the lens of crime and punishment. In that world, there are good people (victims), and there are bad people (criminals). This is the language of the legal system -- not to mention the language of the news media, Hollywood, and our general political discourse. 

The public health sector has a different way of talking about public safety. There, violence can be seen as a disease. Violence is passed down through families and spread through communities. We can have an "outbreak" of violence, which, like a virus, can lead to more violence.

And violence can be treated by building the immune system and resilience of a community. Violence can be prevented. Viewed through this lens, it's not about good people vs bad people.

By finding allies in the public health sector, Daphne is learning new ways to talk about public safety.

And by maintaining strong and mutually respectful relationships within the legal system, she is able to build a bridge between public health and the law. She is patiently and persistently introducing new language to the legal system, building support for programs that address the root causes of violence.

Make no mistake: the public health frame can be a hard sell in the black and white world of crime and punishment.

But Daphne is motivated by what she saw in the juvenile justice system. Over and over she saw kids who were charged with crimes, who were also victims of crime. And her empathy for those kids would not allow her to ignore the gray areas.

>> LESSON 3: Break down silos to build the conversation <<

A wonderful advantage of being an outlier is the ability to step back and look for patterns. Take this quote from Daphne:

“I would love to just sit down to convene a meeting between prosecutors and ER doctors. Think about it, ER doctors are seeing people who experience trauma because of violence, that are either shot or stabbed, or are having some sort of substance abuse crisis.... I mean those people can give you so much insight into what is going on in communities.”

And there are questions underneath all this that can be broadly applied:

  • What groups of people are working on this issue from different angles, and are they talking to each other?  

  • Where are the silos within the issue of public safety, and what conversations and possibilities might arise if we broke them down?

>> LESSON 4: Just start somewhere <<

I asked Daphne to share what advice she would give to someone who is in a place similar to where she was at a few years ago. Her answer:

“Just start. I mean, just start somewhere. I recall a conversation that I had with a woman years ago who was director at the time of juvenile services in Miami. ...I remember meeting with her because they had, of course, this great program that was well-funded. And I said in a meeting, 'how can I do this? I don't have any money.'

And she responded to me, 'you do it and the money will come.' And that's just the way that I've tried to approach things. That I'm going to do what I can. What I think is best and what I think is right... and then hopefully I'm going to do something good ...and it'll get funding. And sometimes stuff that I worked on didn't get funding. But sometimes it did.”

When Daphne began, she didn’t have funding. What she had was a sense that these kids she was seeing needed something that they weren’t getting.

And she didn't wait for permission to start. She started gathering data, asking questions, and having conversations. And she keeps taking that next step, building a path to change as she goes.

Could you use more influence in your work for social impact? 

I've worked with some incredible advocates. And I often run into this irony: 

People who are great at advocating for others often struggle to advocate for themselves, their ideas, and their own needs.

And over time, it affects their ability to show up fully for the cause they want to serve. 

>> If that sounds familiar to you, and you’d like some quick one on one support, click to set up a free consult + strategy session here.