Many years ago, I found myself in an open-plan meeting area sitting on a grey, standard-agency issue midcentury modern couch, interviewing for the second time for my future boss, a woman who would ultimately transform my career. In our first interview, we had covered a lot of the standard territory – my background and experience; where I saw the industry headed; etc. This second interview had started out much the same, until she paused, as if gearing up to drop a bombshell. "Before you take this job, I think it’s important that you know I’m crazy. Are you going to be able to handle that?"
With a line like that, I knew I had to work with her.
Marketing has a well-deserved reputation as a crazy industry. Larger-than-life characters working at the fault lines of media, technology and culture make for interesting times. And I’ve had my fair share of those, as well as many talented, smart, and irreverent female bosses who have taught me and supported me along the way. Were they also crazy? Yes. And that’s a great thing.
"Crazy" has a long and loaded history with women everywhere, one whose repercussions are complicated and amplified even further when it intersects with race, class, and ethnicity. As Rebecca Traister documents in her book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, women who are perceived as direct and assertive, with a desire to challenge the status quo or seek justice, are often dismissed as hysterical, irrational, or yes, crazy.
In the workplace, being labeled as ‘crazy’ by others – consciously or unconsciously - can be just as damaging, and research shows us this label falls disproportionately on women. A 2015 study in Forbes found that women’s perceived competency (read: sanity) drops by 35% and their perceived worth falls by $15,088 when they are judged as being "forceful" or "assertive." Another study the following year showed that while both men and women are held to office norms for appropriate emotional responses, it is women’s responses who come under greater scrutiny.
We don’t need these studies to get to the cold hard truth: we’re all crazy, and gender has nothing to do with it. And honestly, that’s a good thing. We must destigmatize and reclaim crazy for what it is – an essential part of being human.
Most obviously, at its best, crazy gets stuff done. Crazy drives change. Crazy pushes us all to be better. This ethos was famously immortalized in Apple’s 1997 ad, "To the Crazy Ones," which launched the brand’s Think Different Campaign, and has since spawned a never-ending cacophony of inspirational Instagram posts.
But even more importantly, crazy is real. And I believe that more real, authentic people in business and in the world is a good thing.
So how do we reclaim crazy? Or better yet, use better language entirely, for everyone?
Remember that we’re all crazy.
Significantly, much of the research of how we perceive men’s and women’s actions in the workplace takes into account the exact same behaviors. It is only our perceptions and biases that change. We all have the capacity to be passionate; to be stubborn; to be inventive; to be wrong; to be direct; to be late to a meeting because our dog ate a stack of quarters and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. We also all sometimes need to prioritize our families and those who need us, or work late on a big project, at the expense of everything else. Embrace that universal truth, and stop labeling. Life is crazy. People are wonderfully complex.
Crazy bosses can lead to the most fulfilling work.
The great thing about crazy bosses is that you will never be bored. I took the job with the woman who told me she was crazy. Our time together was some of the most fulfilling of my career to date, as she pushed me, our team, and our company relentlessly to completely reimagine who we were and the role we could play for clients and the industry. It was brutal, and exhilarating. Working with dynamic, brave people in an industry driven by constant change gives you an unparalleled opportunity to build and shape what the future will look like. And isn’t that one of the best parts of our jobs?
Embrace crazy – whatever that means for you.
Embracing crazy does not have to mean you are constantly coming up with new products, or challenging every part of your organization’s established ways of working – although it can. Rather, it’s about understanding what it means for you, and leaning into it. For me, embracing crazy means practicing radical empathy, paired with a lifelong curiosity and love of learning. Sometimes I get really excited about new ideas, platforms, or trends we see, like cannabis marketing, subscription-everything, or TikTok. And sometimes this means I drive my team, yes, crazy. Own it! Leading authentically drives change, encourages a culture of healthy risk-taking and debate, and brings together a team that is built on trust.
Remember that there is a difference between being crazy and being mean, self-interested or destructive. In no way do I condone, defend, or excuse bad behavior or any actions that lead to a toxic environment. There is a difference between a colleague who is very direct with their feedback and their expectations of team members, and a colleague who is demeaning or deliberately sabotaging others. To me, this isn’t crazy, it’s poor practice that ultimately leads to the demise of the individual and potentially even the company they worked to build. Empathy is king (and queen!) and accepting people for their craziness and their quirks is what creates an exciting working environment that has change and evolution at its heart. But when someone steps over the line in ways that are harmful to themselves, others, or the organization, that needs to be addressed. Call them out; just don’t call them crazy.
Belle Lenz is the CMO of iProspect US.