Leadership of a rebellion
Top X lists are generally clickbait tripe. But we need people, I need to interview them, so “Top 5 Interview Questions” sounds worth clicking. And then I read this: When I asked “tell me about something you’ve led,” one of the candidates paused and then answered, “I once led a revolt against management in a manufacturing company I worked for.” Wrong answer.
No. It’s the right answer. Not the only right answer, but it may just be the best answer.
Just like you you can only be brave when you’re afraid, you can only show leadership when following you carries a risk or sacrifice. Otherwise, you’re just front-running a trend.
The term “leadership” has been co-opted in the business world. It used to have real meaning that implied courage, sacrifice, and dedication. Now it is just another dot on the corporate bullshit bingo card. Business people now actually think leadership is about being popular and liked; not offending anyone in power and following the rules, to the point that leading a rebellion disqualifies you from a leadership role with whatever this Procurious outfit is.
And that’s what’s broken in business. We need more rebels in leadership roles. We need people to stand up and say “the king is naked” every once in a while. We need someone to tell the CEO he’s driving the company car off a cliff and put their professional life on the line for the right cause, whether it’s ethics or company direction. Instead we get a toxic mix of conformists and backstabbers – those who follow the company line even if they don’t believe in it, and those that cheer the loudest in support only to undermine the plan behind the scenes.
A Bit of History
Who are the top leaders we think of in the history of the US? In some order, the top 3 are near-universally listed as the following — rebellious, polarizing, and rule-breaking — presidents:
- George Washington led a rebellion.
- Abraham Lincoln was so unpopular, half the states left the union.
- FDR offended all the moneyed interests and pushed more unconstitutional laws than any other president (including trying to pack the Supreme Court to allow them to go through).
You don’t have to agree with the list to recognize the leadership qualities.
If your preference leans towards Ronald Reagan instead of FDR, he tried to lead a party revolt against a sitting president in 1976. So did Teddy Roosevelt, another fixture in the top 3 on historian lists, not to mention on Mount Rushmore.
Heck, even if you’re not a fan of Lincoln and talk about the “war of northern aggression,” then your heroes are rebels too.
The Co-opting of Leadership
Over time, the term leadership, at least in the business world, has been co-opted by something that passively or actively writes rebellious acts out of the picture. Rather, leadership is viewed as fostering consensus, implementing “best practices,” and otherwise doing the Dale Carnegie thing – making friends and influencing people. A recent Forbes summary of leadership definitions lands on this after going through several other unsatisfactory variants from industry luminaries: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
This is not cherrypicked. As of today, this is among the top results on Google and the summary definition used in an 9,000+ word Wikipedia article on leadership. Out of everything that was written from Plato onwards through “leadership studies” programs in MBA schools; out of 96 citations listed in the same article, this bland platitude is where we landed as a group. And a sad thing this is:
- Note the inherent lack of conflict or obstacles in this definition. Everyone gets in a circle and sings Kumbaya, and the one that can get everyone to sing loudest is the leader.
- There’s no reference to actually achieving a result either – so you don’t even have to get anyone to sing louder – just to “maximize their effort.”
- Also, there’s no mention of the goal being something worthwhile. Getting the team to paddle towards the 1000-foot waterfall is as good as getting them to paddle to shore.
- Maybe we’re in a new postmodern world where there’s no objectively good goals. But there isn’t even a reference to the “leader” actually believing in the goal he’s leading towards.
You know what you just defined? An amoral manipulator. That’s your perfect business leader according to Forbes. And practice is not too far from theory. A recent study indicated that 1 of every 25 business leaders is a psychopath. And if anything, I would say that’s a conservative number.
Anyone who’s worked for a large company has seen leadership positions taken by empty suits with no appreciable talent except for making rousing speeches that no one, least of all the speaker, actually believes. For instance, they have no moral compass or qualms about the hypocrisy of saying “our people are our most important asset” even as they lay off half their staff. They are careful to follow the party line, especially when they’re undermining it behind the scenes. But one thing they never get caught in is an open rebellion.
These are the leaders we get in the business world – and if our definition is as above, they are the leaders we deserve.
Defining the Rebel Leader
So how do we change the definition of leadership to define George Washington in and Patrick Bateman out? Here’s my shot:
- A leader inspires himself and others to take risks and make sacrifices to reach a shared success.
Let’s decompose this a bit:
- Inspires himself: A hypocrite is not a leader. Neither is a general sending waves of soldiers against an impregnable position. But someone who pledges his life, fortune, and sacred honour to the cause is a leader.
- Inspires others: Unquestionably, a leader needs followers. But there’s no need for active “social influence” or manipulation. Leading by example also works, as long as it’s inspirational.
- Take risks and make sacrifices: Selling something at no cost does not make you a good salesman. Similarly, leading someone in a direction that does not differ materially from where they would go based on their self-interest does not make you a good leader.
- Shared success: A good leader does not discard followers as soon as they’re no longer useful. He does not take all the credit. That’s what makes him better than an amoral manipulator.
Rebellion is not in the definition directly. With apologies to the ghost of James Dean, following a rebel without a cause is not the best of ideas. But when the obstacle to shared success within an organization is unreasonable authority, there is no choice for a leader, but to rebel. It may not be the first resort – you can reason, plead, bargain, whatever the case may be. But when those in command are unswerving in following a course that will lead your team away from shared success, rebellion is the only choice.
Rebellion as a Tool for Success
So who am I to talk about leadership? I don’t lead a school of leadership studies. I didn’t even go to one. I’m not a general or a CEO. But I think I’ve been fortunate to inspire a few people in my life. And I’m not alone. For example, one of the things that took PayPal to a top firm was fostering a culture of dissent. Encouraging open disagreement has been recognized by Harvard Business School as a marker of success. Scot Hanley posted a good overview of rebellion in leadership through the centuries.
When and How to Rebel
Not all rebellions are positive. There are good reasons to rebel and bad ones – and likewise positive and negative paths to achieving the change you are seeking. These may vary based on your own moral compass. For example, for me, sins of commission (e.g. lying to someone) are different than sins of omission (e.g. not speaking up when you hear a colleague blatantly lying). For others, they are equivalent. But I think reflecting on the seriousness of the act of rebellion will lead you to the right decision for you – as it did for me in the matrix below:
While I think the above are good universal guidelines, there are also ones that I realize are deeply personal. For instance, I consider hypocrisy and double standards to be intolerable and would not want to be part of an organization that has “quo licet Jovi, non licet bovi” as a motto. But for others, a hierarchy that rewards executives with flexible hours while firing a clerk for being 2 minutes late may be ok. I believe in justice – rewarding those that contributed to the company success with the best pay. Others believe in market pricing – you don’t earn what you deserve, but what you negotiate. I believe in common sense – if no one reads a report, it’s no failure to stop writing it. Others believe in properly following proper protocols and eliminating judgment calls in favor of process.
In terms of means, positive leadership of a rebellion is a last resort. Before you rebel, you cajole, prove, plead, bargain. Defiance is a last step. And when that step is taken, it’s a lot like civil disobedience. You don’t hide from the consequences. You go in fully realizing that your views may cost you career advancement, your job, or even your career in your chosen industry if you have a particularly vindictive boss. And you don’t hide the consequences from the people that follow you into rebellion. Your opposition is not undermining an idea or project behind the scenes – it is direct refusal to participate in or endorse insane or unethical courses of action. In other words, it’s insubordination. And insubordination is a firing offense, so be ready to be fired.
In the face of that, why rebel? Why risk it all and ask others to do so as well? Because life is too short to be a hypocrite. Because no amount of money is enough to buy back your soul. Because “I was just following orders” is no excuse. And because there is a different result that you can get. Because others around you may think the same thing you are thinking but be too afraid of not conforming to tell the emperor he has no clothes.[i] And last, but by no means least, because you might just win.
Like Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, you go into a rebellion expecting to fail. After all, if your management was unreasonable enough to ignore the cajoling, pleading, and bargaining phases, then they have to be evil and/or delusional, right? But in spite of all of that, if you rebel, you believe deep down that they’re not beyond redemption – that somewhere is still the person that you were excited to partner with when they hired you – the one that you shared a drink with over a shared success or failure. And sometimes, putting yourself out there and saying “I believe in this strongly enough to put my job on the line” gets them back to being that person.
Then again, that assumes there’s a human being involved. If your opponent is a corporate machine, might as well pack your things and work for a small business next time.
[i] Maybe they remember this great quote from Terry Pratchett: Then you have The Story of the Emperor Who Had No Clothes.
But if you knew a bit more, it would be The Story of the Boy Who Got a Well-Deserved Thrashing from His Dad for Being Rude to Royalty, and Was Locked Up. Or The Story of the Whole Crowd Who Were Rounded Up by the Guards and Told ‘This Didn’t Happen, Okay? Does Anyone Want to Argue?’ Or it could be a story of how a whole kingdom suddenly saw the benefits of the ‘new clothes’, and developed an enthusiasm for healthy sports* in a lively and refreshing atmosphere which got many new adherents every year, and led to a recession caused by the collapse of the conventional clothing industry. It could even be a story about The Great Pneumonia Epidemic of ’09. It all depends on how much you know.
Interviewing a Rebel
So suppose you asked the question of “what have you led” and someone told you they led a rebellion. I don’t know about you, but I’d be full of questions:
- What was the impetus?
- What did you try before rebelling?
- How did you do it?
- Who supported you?
- What was the outcome?
And yes, some answers to that would be bad. Selfish reasons for rebelling. Backroom intrigues. Lack of support. But I’d at least be curious. Wouldn’t you? And maybe I’d hire that rebel after all.