Be unique, be different – how do you stand out in a crowd?

A sometimes tense, disjointed and disappointingly infrequently cacophonous seven-way live televised political party leaders debate last week saw Ed Miliband just shave ahead of his rivals, according to a snap Guardian poll conducted after the event. A poll for the Daily Mail had Cameron just a point ahead, whilst ITV’s own poll had Miliband, Cameron, Farage and Sturgeon inseparable on a sample statistically too small to draw conclusions.

Labour, aware of Miliband’s poor personal ratings before the campaign, will be pleased he was at least matching Cameron, according to ICM and three other post-debate polls. Miliband branded the Prime Minister an ‘invisible man’, but Cameron will be relieved to emerge from a safety-first performance largely unscathed from his only head-to-head television clash with Miliband.

Cameron, remaining calm under sustained attack, drove home the central message of the Tory campaign – ‘the choice at this election is sticking with the plan that’s working’, as Cameron and Miliband were in a dead heat – 50% to 50% – when voters were asked to choose simply between the leader of the two parties. Miliband yearned for a TV debate that would be his audition for the role of Prime Minister. As it turned out, sharing the stage with six others, he struggled even to be leader of the opposition.

It’s not that he did badly, his answers were fluent and when he had the chance to square up directly against Cameron he was forceful. He said the PM had promised to protect the NHS and had let voters down. ‘They believed you, they believed you,’ he said. No, Miliband’s problem was that he could only rarely get a clear shot. In his way were others who wanted to slam the status quo – at least one of whom shone as she did so.

It was the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who demonstrated command and authority. Meanwhile, when Nigel Farage sank low with a rant against HIV-positive foreigners, it was Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood who won applause by telling him he should be ashamed of himself.

For his part, Cameron looked a little remote and would have suffered if viewers’ attention had not been divided into seven parts, for this was messy, complicated and a long way from the straight fight between two men that Miliband wanted. The tone was set the minute Nick Clegg took his first potshot at his erstwhile boss – everyone against Cameron, big guns scrapping among themselves, smaller ones largely ignored.

The big four offered no surprises: Cameron stuck to his much-vaunted plan, Clegg triangulated, Miliband appealed earnestly to ‘you at home’ and Farage spluttered about ‘getting real’, but it was the women who breathed life into the debate, all three were braver than the men in confronting Farage over immigration, and the Green’s Natalie Bennett spoke with humanity, articulating emotional realities behind austerity.

Though the inattentive viewer might have thought they had stumbled upon a teatime game show, it quickly became clear why the leaders signed up to this format. This wasn’t an inquisition in terms of arguments forwarded and rigorously scrutinised. This was an opportunity for each to perform their party pieces without much interrogatory pressure. Each pronounced directly to camera. Each received the exposure they desired. There was much less benefit for the viewer.

The spikiest performers were those with least to lose. Nicola Sturgeon was assured throughout. Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru staked out distinctive positions on immigration and aid. Farage came to steal the show, his mantra ‘a plague on all your houses’. His remedy at each stage: leave Europe and curb immigration. On another night, the vacuity might have been challenged. But it wasn’t going to happen, there was very little debate or challenge to distil the underlying differences on vision, values or purpose, it was a seven-seat soap box for each to broadcast their own rhetoric with a few well-worn sound bites thrown in.

Vote-wise, Cameron is, quite literally, the devil you know. The Tories have a strident plan to eradicate our deficit by 2016, and yes, some less hardy souls are surviving on food bank handouts of spaghetti hoops, but look, we’re cutting back and we’re all in this together. The Tories are – as per usual – the party which says yes to pulling up one’s socks, buckling down and keeping upper lips stiff.

Miliband’s pre-election pledges form an irresistible-sounding utopia. Labour will fund this bright future by a 50p tax for everyone earning over £150k, a mansion tax for anyone with a home worth more than £2m and, OK, the rest is unclear. The ‘We only ever win the World Cup under Labour’ banners haven’t yet been unfurled and likewise, make no bones about plans to withdraw several freebies from wealthier pensioners, too.

There’s a strong sense of too little, too late with Clegg’s election mantra of ‘Bold Ideas’ before the Lib Dems seemingly inevitable return to the political wilderness. Farage’s policies are either clear-headed patriotic sense, or terrifying starter-level Nazi bile. Farage, truly, is the ‘man in the pub’, the pub with a tattered England flag in the window. The Green Party’s manifesto is a collection of statements a wide-eyed innocent 17-year-old might shout at the Christmas dinner table, having quickly necked three glasses of merlot. It’s all a bit day-three-at-sunny-Glastonbury.

So given the intention of the debate was to offer the public a chance to ‘compare and contrast’. How do you make sure people remember you? How do you make a solid, lasting impression? What makes you different and how can you stand out from all the rest? How can you be remarkable, memorable and be the exemplar in a crowded marketplace?

According to genetics, there is not much that makes us humans different from one another, or indeed other animals – we share 98.5% of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter, but we also share about 60% of our genes with tomatoes! We all wonder what makes us different and unique. From the moment we are old enough to understand the concept of uniqueness, I think we all want to know what it is that makes us stand out. We want to be inimitable, and ensure that we remain distinctive one-way or another.

For some people it means becoming the best in their field and being memorable. Others do not focus on their own individuality so much, but will still try to have some aspect of their life or personality that is truly theirs alone. I think that we make ourselves unique by what we do, how we live and the way in which we interact with other people. We do not have to try very hard to be different as it comes naturally, however many fight uniqueness in order to fit in, to belong or be accepted.

Some people have adapted to try to hide their exclusive traits so not to be judged as out of the ordinary. The phrase ‘you’re unique, just like everyone else’ springs to mind. Lots of things make me who I am, and everyone is special in some way. However, one of humanity’s greatest problems is complacency, in that not everyone pushes himself or herself to make the most of their uniqueness, to realise their potential and make their mark.

Just recently I’ve been reading about Carl Elsener. who displayed a number of traits we can learn from as we go about our everyday lives with a desire to push ourselves and be the best we can be, thus also offering insight to the seven leaders from last week’s debate.

Carl Elsener started as a teenage apprentice cutler straight from school, and went on to turn a relatively simple penknife into the global phenomenon that is the multi-functional Swiss Army Knife. He worked for the Swiss family firm Victorinox for 70 years, 57 of them as CEO. He died in June 2013, aged 90.

The famous red-handled knife with the Swiss white cross has held a lifetime fascination for me, offering a spoon, fork, compass, screwdriver, mini-screwdriver for spectacles, can opener, wood and metal saw, toothpick, tweezers, scissors, pliers, key ring, fish-scaler and magnifying glass. Moving with the times, some latest models come with an LED light, laser pointer, USB memory stick, digital clock, Bluetooth or even MP3 player.

He’s up there with Steve Jobs as my greatest innovator of all time, mainly because of the fascination his memorable device had upon me as child, and its lasting impression of ingenuity.

Elsener presided over Victorinox’s expansion into other products, including watches, clothing, luggage, rucksacks and fragrances. The ‘war on terror’ after 9/11 had seen sales of the Swiss Army Knife plummet 50% after they were prohibited from airline hand baggage, but the new product range helped keep the family firm afloat. Today, 60,000 knives are produced daily providing current annual revenues of more than $500m and making Victorinox the largest cutlery manufacturer in Europe.

It started when Elsener’s grandfather opened a cutlery business in 1884. In 1891 the company won its first contract with the Swiss army. after the founder’s mother died in 1909, he chose her name, Victoria, as his trademark; in 1921 it became Victorinox to reflect the use of stainless steel in the product.

Elsener took over as CEO from his own father in 1950 when the knives were still made by hand. After introducing machine production, he quickly recognised the popularity of his Offiziersmesser (‘Officer’s Knife’) among US forces personnel based in post-war Europe. It was the Americans who, unable to get their tongues round Offiziersmesser, first called it the Swiss Army Knife.

He was a tireless man who could work at the office until two in the morning. When he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, he wrote it down on the wallpaper so as not to forget it. Despite his success, his motto remained: Gueti sache chone immer no bässer wärde – Good things can always be made better.

So, what made Elsener unique, what were his qualities that made him stand out from the crowd? For me, there are five special traits we can take from this outstanding man:

Questioning filled with curiosity, showing a passion for inquiry. Thought-provoking attitudes frequently challenge the status quo, Why does it need to be done like this? If we tried this, what would happen? He was renowned for asking questions to understand how things really were, why they were that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Their questions provoked new insights, connections, possibilities,

Experimenting Simply, he was an experimenter, constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things, underpinned by a really advanced intellectual curiosity.

Restlessness Innovators like Elsener always think there is a better way, and with their passion driving them on, know that they are missing something. He failed with new designs, but in a pragmatic, thoughtful way, subsequent great ideas coming to fruition after following his instincts with persistence. As an outlier, his uniqueness was driven by a constant need to challenge status quo and find better ways of doing things.

Passion I think the key characteristic of Elsener was passion. He truly cared about what he was doing, investing time, thought and effort into creating something that made a difference. It’s this passion, combined with a willingness to fail, and learn from those mistakes, that truly marks those with standout qualities.

Purpose Elsener saw no boundaries in what they were trying to achieve. He strove to be forward thinking every day to embrace the challenge facing them. Crucially, he didn’t just talk about stuff, he did it, and with belief and self-confidence. As a result, he was unique, making his mark beyond what most of us can only dream to achieve.

If you want more votes than your political rivals – if you want to sell more than your competitors to your target market – you need to remind your audience what is it about you that is distinctive, and Elsener’s traits – especially his passion and purpose – remind us – and our politicians – as to how you become remarkable and stand out head and shoulders from your rivals.

We’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. You need to be authentic, as Oscar Wild said, Be yourself, everyone else it taken, and as Steve Jobs was, and still is, known for his Be Unique, Be Different personal motto.

Don’t compare yourself with anyone, if you do so, you are insulting yourself. If you want to stand out from the crowd, give people a reason not to forget you. Are you unreasonable? Here’s one good reason why you should be: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

So said George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman back in 1903. The same is still true for anybody innovating and making positive change in the World. Everyone of us, whether an entrepreneur, an artist or politician should strive to be unreasonable, to push to become a force for good, create more innovation and more progress.