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Are you a rebel leader?


In the Know... A conversation with Francesca Gino author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life (Dey Street Books, May 2018)

In business and life, we’re surrounded by rebels. Our parents might have warned us about these rabble-rousers. But breaking rules can create needed change – and deliver unbridled returns. 

In her new book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life, behavioral and social scientist Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, explores the benefits of being a rebel in life and at work.

“Rebels are all around us,” she says. Consider Apple founder Steve Jobs; film director Ava Duvernay; Pixar President and co-founder Ed Catmull; magician Harry Houdini; even Napoleon Bonaparte. “And they have a secret: You don’t have to be born a Rebel,” she says.

Q: What – and who – is “rebel talent” in today’s workplace?

A: When we think of rebels, we think of trouble. But rebels know how to break the habits that hold us back. We lean toward what’s comfortable and familiar, falling easily into routine. We prefer certainty over doubt. We accept the social roles that are passed on to us, almost without question, and go along with the majority view rather than sticking our necks out.

Rebels ask questions others don’t and look at a problem from multiple perspectives. Rebels aren’t afraid to express unorthodox opinions at work or to make themselves vulnerable in front of others. And yes, rebels often are misunderstood.

Q: Do rebels in the workplace risk being treated as outcasts and troublemakers rather than as trusted or valued disruptors?

A: We seem to have a fixed idea of rebels in the business world. Like Apple visionary Steve Jobs, we often think of rebels as creative, but also difficult to work with. We need to shift our thinking. To be a rebel does not mean you have to be an outcast or a troublemaker. Effective rebels are people who break rules in ways that are positive and productive.

Q: Given that “rebels” often may be perceived as undesirable to more conservative execs or leaders, how can the rebels among us safely navigate what is usually uncharted territory?

A: A key difference between effective and ineffective rebels is their “delivery” – effective rebels use and embrace the five talents I discuss in the book [novelty, curiosity, perspective, authenticity and diversity] and do so with humility. Ineffective rebels, instead, often show arrogance.

Take curiosity, for instance. Although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing that it will increase risk and inefficiency. To encourage curiosity, leaders must model inquisitiveness…Leaders can also let employees explore and broaden their interests.

Q: Is the "rebel ethos" teachable or learnable?

A: The rebel ethos is definitely both teachable and learnable. Most of us are not born rebels. For me, living like a rebel is a matter of trying little things – red sneakers in formal settings, for example – as well as a broader commitment to exploring ways of being in the world that may at first feel wrong, possibly even destructive. If you’re like me, after trying the rebel life, you won’t want to go back. 

Q: How can rebels safely introduce “rule-breaking” in the workplace as a good thing?

A: We think about rebels the wrong way. Rebel Talent is about rule-breaking as a constructive rather than destructive force. Rebels challenge the status quo in ways that drive positive change. The world is becoming more uncertain, our problems more complex. The rebel, undaunted by novel situations and ideas, adapts to change as a matter of course.

Rebels can start breaking rules and showing others that the consequences are positive. When Greg Dyke arrived at the BBC in early 2000, he found a troubled organization that needed reform. To signal the type of change he wanted to see, the new general director distributed yellow cards resembling the penalty cards soccer referees hold up when they’re warning a player. If a staff member saw someone trying to block a good idea, he or she should wave the yellow card in the air and speak up, Dyke told his team. He wanted employees to use the cards to “cut the crap and make it happen.”

Q: What can managers, senior leaders, and organizations do to better inculcate rebel talent? How can each set up a system to identify or reward rebel talent, to figure out ways to try to spread it, and to avoid keeping it down or inadvertently squashing it?

A: Leaders can start by assuming that we all have rebel potential. It is just a matter of encouraging people to rely on each of the 5 rebel talents more often: novelty, curiosity, perspective, authenticity and diversity.

Q: To what extent do some of your book’s themes also relate to themes of "rebel leadership"?

A: In the book I suggest rebel leadership is not just for people who think of themselves as leaders. And you don’t need a staff of people working under you to be a rebel leader. Rebel leadership means that you prefer working in a rebel organization and that you support your organization in that mission. Rebel leadership means fighting our natural human urges for the comfortable and the familiar. We have an innate desire to be accepted by others and thus regularly conform to their views, preferences, and behavior. We rarely question the status quo. We easily accept existing social roles and fall prey to unconscious biases like stereotypes. It’s human nature to stay narrowly focused on our own perspective and on information that proves us right. By contrast, rebels know themselves and are aware of these limitations, but they don’t believe there are limits on what they can accomplish.

Q: Does “rebellion” have an age limit? If you weren’t a rebel as a youth, can you become one later in your life or career? Along those lines, how can execs in their 40s and older leverage your book’s message?

A: Rebellion does not have an age limit. And it is never too late to become a rebel, at work and in life more generally by using the tips and the research in the book to introduce meaningful changes in their leadership – so that they can model rebelliousness for others more often and also encourage it on a regular basis.

In the years I’ve been studying rebels, I’ve realized that they come in many varieties. They behave in different ways, and need different approaches to develop their talent. Understanding what I refer to as your Rebel Quotient is an important first step. Interested readers will find a free assessment to determine which rebel ingredients come most naturally to them and where they have the most room to grow ( Being rebellious is uncomfortable. But becoming more aware of one’s own rebel profile will help one become more comfortable with the uncomfortable.

The Center: Thanks for letting us ask these questions Dr. Gino.

About “In the Know…”

“In the Know...” is a recurring feature of Leadership Insights, published by the Florida International University Center for Leadership. The award-winning FIU Center for Leadership explores leadership thought and practice through continuous research; assists in the development of keen self-insight; teaches leadership competencies through open-enrollment and custom, company-specific leadership seminars and programs. The Center equips corporate partners and executives meaningfully transform their organizations and their societies by equipping better leaders for a better world.

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