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The Rebel Leader

| May 22, 2018

by Jim Bruce

The MOR Leaders Program, as the name implies, is about leadership.  Just what is it that leaders do and how do they go about doing it?  Two weeks ago, we focused on the humble leader.  There we wrote about what makes a leader humble1 and how a leader can cultivate those characteristics in his or her leadership style.
Leadership style has to do with the way a leader provides direction, implements plans, and motivates people.  The literature on leadership discusses many different styles.
For example, Daniel Goleman, best known for his work on emotional intelligence, builds on that work in his essay Leadership That Gets Results2 to identify six styles of leadership:  “Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance.  Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision.  Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony.  Democratic leaders build consensus through participation.  Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction.  And coaching leaders develop people for the future.”
To this, two weeks ago, we added humble leaders who focus more on the people they lead and their success and well being.  Other writers have lists that overlap with and add to Goleman’s.  (For example, see the articles listed in Additional Readings below.) 
Recently, Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, authored a new book, Rebel Talent:  Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life,3 which significantly adds to the discussion of leadership style.  Gino’s research into “rebel leadership” began with her discovery of the cookbook Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.  In leafing through the book in a bookstore, she found it filled with nontraditional takes on traditional Italian dishes.  To Gino, who grew up in Italy, you simply did not mess around with the traditional recipes that were handed from generation to generation.  Discovering this book was the beginning of a journey which led Gino on a quest to identify successful rebels.  She traveled to Italy to interview the cookbook’s author, Massimo Bottura.  She interviewed Chesley Sullenberger, who in an emergency landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River.  She studied the 18th century pirate Blackbeard, whose ship she concluded “was arguably more democratic than America was at the time.”
Through her work on the book, Gino developed a set of eight principles of rebel leadership:

  1. Seek out the new.  Professor Gino says:  “It’s very easy for all of us to fall back into routines and mindlessly follow them, day after day.”  Sometimes, we need to break from the tried-and-true and seek another approach to meet our goal.  Teach your team about and create opportunities and experiences for them and yourself in areas outside those typically encountered in your team’s work. 
  2. Encourage constructive dissent.  Too often we only consider one perspective.  Our own.  Typically, at best we only see the opinions of those who will agree with us.  Rebels fight this instinct seeking out diverse and even dissenting opinions to instill a more robust discussion and better result.
  3. Open conversations, don’t close them.  Too often, we rush to close conversations.  Gino suggests that leaders take their lead from Improv comedy where the basic ground rule is to keep the conversation going, building on, expanding, what the previous speaker has said.  The operative phrase to continue the conversation is “yes, and,”…  At Pixar, this is called “plussing” and is used to improve ideas without using judgmental language.  It encourages collaboration.
  4. Reveal yourself – and reflect.  Professor Gino:  Rebel leaders “don’t hide who they are, or pretend to know, or be something they are not.” 
  5. Learn everything – then forget everything.  It is crucial that you master the fundamentals of your trade and role.  However, it is just as crucial that you do not let yourself become a slave to the rules.  By mastering the fundamentals, you have a deep understanding of “what’s there.”  This is the foundation upon which you transform and create.
  6. Find freedom in constraints.  Real leaders can and do find inspiration in constraints.  As an example, Professor Gino, in her book notes “the author Dr. Seuss, who made a bet with the cofounder of Random House that he could write a whole book with only fifty different words.  The bestselling result:  ’Green Eggs and Ham’.”  What constraint are you laboring under that can give you inspiration?
  7. Lead from the trenches.  Here I think of my grandfather whose mantra was “Don’t ever ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.”  His railroad crew would have done anything he asked them to do.  And, they respected him for working with them.  Your team will as well.
  8. Foster happy accidents.  Find ways to turn unexpected events – conversations with individuals from totally different areas of expertise, a walk or run on a different route, a surprise encounter with a long-ago close colleague, etc. – into new insights that may unlock a problem being worked on, thus creating a breakthrough. 

Elements from these eight principles of Rebel Leadership naturally combine with the actions and behaviors we discussed in the essay The Humble Leader as well as with actions and behaviors from other leadership styles to form your unique personal leadership style.  We are all unique and most likely we each do not use as full a set of actions and behaviors when we lead as we might find helpful. 
So, as an exercise for when you are reflecting this week about your work, take time to reflect on your leadership style.  Just how do you, your staff, your managers, your colleagues see you as a leader?  What are those three to five skills you most often call upon?  What would be helpful for you to add to your repertoire?  And, now take the most important thing you identify as something that you should add to your leadership style – for me it’s “plussing” – and make it a new practice that you work to develop.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1.  Jim Bruce, The Humble Leader, MOR Insight, May 8, 2018.
  2. Daniel Goleman, Leadership That Gets Results, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000.
  3. Francesca Gino, Rebel Talent:  Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, Harper-Collins, 2018.

Additional Readings:

  1. 9 Common Leadership styles:  Which Type of Leader Are You?, The Executive Connection Blog.
  2. Ahmed Raza, 12 Different Types of Leadership Styles,