The fifteenth of our 20 Leadership Lessons Learned in East Africa: sometimes being out of step with the norm is a good thing. Occasionally individuals do things, intentionally or not, that don’t conform with the rest of their peers—and sometimes that has a positive impact. We call these people positive deviants. We co-created a mentoring process using positive deviants called “Leader Mothers” as the change agents to model and reinforce positive health behaviors and help save newborn lives. These women have now reached over 35,000 families in Karamoja with lifesaving health practices.

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Positive Deviants

Using “Leader Mothers” to Save Newborn Lives


Photo by Aaron White

Let’s be honest. It’s hard to change our own behavior.

We’re very good at conforming to social norms, following the rest of the group. At some evolutionary level, this probably keeps us from being eaten by a bear, but nowadays these social pressures dictate how we dress, what we eat, and how we raise a family.

However, there are occasionally individuals that are doing certain things, often unintentionally, that are out of step with the rest of their peers—and sometimes it’s having a positive impact on them or their family. We call these people positive deviants.

If the positive deviants can learn to identify what they’re doing differently, and then can learn to influence others in their community, then behavior can be changed for the better.

For a place like Karamoja in Uganda, with a neglected healthcare system and high maternal and child mortality, this influence of behavior through active mentoring can make big changes. They can even be lifesaving ones, such as in how a newborn is cared for, ensuring the baby gets the right nutrition and if needed, the right medical treatment.

With an NGO partner, we co-created a mentoring process that modeled behavior change using positive deviants called “Leader Mothers” as the change agents. (CCL is not a healthcare provider; rather, we focus on strengthening the people side of the equation to make what our partners are doing more effective.)

Since the process is culturally relevant, health messages are easily transferable through stories, good facilitation, and examples. It’s relationship-based, using respected mentors to reinforce positive health behaviors and ensure accountability.

Leader Mothers in Karamoja have now reached over 35,000 women and their families with lifesaving health practices. Our part was small on this project, but the idea to use positive deviant mentoring to effectively model and promote healthy behaviors is big.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  • Was there a time in your life that you followed the status quo when it may have been more constructive to deviate from it?
  • How do we balance our responsibility to help guide others with their individual freedom and agency?

Tell us your big ideas in the comments.

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Leadership Beyond Boundaries - Center for Creative Leadership logoThis series, 20 Leadership Lessons Learned in East Africa, was brought to you by CCL’s Ethiopia office and Leadership Beyond Boundaries, an initiative by the Center for Creative Leadership to democratize leadership development and unlock the power of human potential around the globe.

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