Rebellious Leaders Will Change the Workplace: Harvard Scientist Shares 3 Ways Non-Conformity Drives Innovation Rebellious Leaders Will Change the Workplace: Harvard Scientist Shares 3 Ways Non-Conformity Drives Innovation
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October 07, 2021

Rebellious Leaders Will Change the Workplace: Harvard Scientist Shares 3 Ways Non-Conformity Drives Innovation

Francesca Gino, Author & Professor, Harvard Business School

Interviewed by Scott Jacobs, Partner, Technology Practice, Acertitude

Rebellious leaders look at difficulties in front of them and wonder, “What can we learn?” Rebel leaders remain curious. When society is in flux, like now, they focus on what opportunities lie ahead versus wishing things back to “normal”. They spend time and energy challenging the status quo, wondering how doing things differently allows their teams to embrace new chapters, versus resisting change. Their unconventional nature may turn or scratch heads and raise eyebrows at times, but successful rebels leverage non-conformity to make their teams and companies shine. They build organizations to be rebuilt, constantly iterating to make them better and stronger than before, with talent as the building blocks for innovation. Indeed, the most successful leaders do break the rules. 

To learn more about why companies looking to remain competitive should fill their leadership ranks with rebellious talent and narrow their hiring focuses on such, Scott Jacobs, a partner in Acertitude’s Technology practice, sat down with Harvard Business School professor and author of “Rebel Talent” Francesca Gino on episode 2 of the Brilliant People Podcast. Below is an exclusive extended version of our podcast conversation.

Listen to the podcast:

Embrace New Talents

Scott: Francesca, why do we need more rebellious leaders in the world? And what does “rebel” mean to you?

Francesca: Rebellious leaders aren’t busy yearning for pre-pandemic days. They are instead confronting a new era of business; one requiring a new approach to work. They demonstrate curiosity ("How can we turn a crisis into opportunity?"), authenticity ("I don’t have all the answers. That’s OK."), perspective ("Let’s look at the problem from multiple viewpoints."), and novelty ("I feel empowered to take on something different.").

Leaders who embrace these talents will see higher performance levels, more innovation, and heightened adaptability — both in themselves and their teams. Constructive non-conformity is a critical business strategy to ensure a company remains competitive. 

Unleash Your Inner Rebel

Scott: What specific actions can people looking to unleash their rebellious side take?

Francesca: First, ask more questions. Curiosity is a pillar of rebellious leadership; it causes us to think more deeply about what we don’t know. Questions are a way to express knowledge gaps and gather information from people who know how to fill them — and studies show curiosity begets creativity. Many iconic leaders have especially hungry minds.

Scott: Who is someone you admire who exemplifies this mindset?

Francesca: “What do I have a chance to learn today?” This is a question Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — celebrated for his creative problem-solving under extreme stress — asks himself often.

Be more like Sully: Never stop asking questions. This goes for every person in a company, no matter their role, experience, salary, or background. Even the most respected leaders are continuously chasing a state of enlightenment. We’re all on a journey. Stay curious about what might come next.

Scott: How can people drive more curiosity across teams?

Francesca: To encourage more curiosity in your direct reports, add learning goals to performance goals in developmental plans. Additionally, push them to ask “why.” Often, employees feel like their managers’ words are law — so they don’t bother to ask why a particular decision was made. It’s okay to empower your direct reports to poke holes in decisions. Resist the urge to judge. Curiosity and judgment cannot coexist.

Action Items:

  • Identify areas where you have the most questions. Make a list of what these questions are, and work with your teams to tackle them.
  • Ask questions of your team members. In a study I conducted of more than 3,000 employees, 70% said they encounter barriers to asking more questions at work. Help them overcome those barriers, by pushing them to understand why they choose to do something, and what the greater implications of this action might be. Add learning goals to reviews, when it makes sense to do so.
  • Ask questions with an open mind, without judgment, preconceived notions of what the answer might be, or without listening to alternative views.

Scott: What is another trait rebel leaders possess?

Francesca: Rebellious leaders have humility. There is a major difference between leaders who think they are rebels and those who are, and it usually boils down to humility. Rebel leaders don’t believe their title alone will earn them respect. Like a pirate ship captain, they know they will walk the plank if they can’t prove their value. They earn their keep by getting down in the trenches with the team.

Scott: Tell me about someone you know who is a rebel in this way.

Francesca: Sure. The first time I met Italian restaurateur and renowned chef Massimo Bottura, for example, he donned his chef’s coat, grabbed a broom, and began sweeping the front entrance of the restaurant. At first, I thought, “Why is he doing this?” But I soon realized how contagious Bottura’s passion for the job was. I got the sense that his crew wanted to be there — working hard side by side. They knew they were part of something bigger and that each team member was integral to the whole operation.

Rebel leaders know they are not always the smartest people in the room — and their teams are higher performers, better collaborators, and more nimble as a result. The most rebellious leaders are open to others’ perspectives. When your direct reports question a decision you made, push yourself to ask: “Is there anything to suggest I’m mistaken?”

Action Items:

  • Identify how you can prove your value to others in a tangible way. Then, take steps to achieve this goal.
  • Make it a priority to work alongside your team, not from afar. Consider the art of wearing many different hats as a valuable skill that makes you an integral part of the whole and helps you better understand your company’s purpose, audience, and mission from different lenses. These lenses will shape your future decisions, because you’ll be better versed in ’s needs, wants, and talents.
  • Surround yourself with people who know more about a topic than you do to boost your company's performance. When teams are cognitively diverse (i.e., have differing perspectives), they solve problems faster than those that aren't. Work to network with people you can learn from, hire them into your company, and talk to them so you better understand something you want to know more about.

Scott: What’s a third trait rebellious leaders possess? Any examples from your client work that resonate with you?

Francesca: A third trait of rebellious leaders is they expect the best from others — and yourself.

I have an example to share. In our client work, we frequently ask team leaders why they have a certain process in place. The response is usually: “We’ve always done it this way.” It’s easy to get stuck in cycles, going through the motions with eyes closed to new opportunities. However, reversing this habit isn’t just a matter of plugging a rebel leader in somewhere.

Pushing your team to new heights requires a complete culture shift that often moves from the bottom up. Rebel leaders set high expectations — but they also model the behavior themselves to bring out the best talents in others. You set the stage for team members to emerge as rebels and allow them to show up differently.

For example, I once worked with a U.S. Air Force leader who commanded a squadron of pilots. Military culture can be quite change-averse, but this rebel leader looked at his team and said, “Our mission is to be combat-ready. If we want to get there, we need to do things differently. We need to approach work more creatively, bring out more innovative ideas, and rethink the way we work.” He empowered his colleagues by expecting more from them. In the last few years, the squadron has been able to make major strides in pilot safety.

Action Items:

  • Identify a process that hasn’t changed in a while. Consider if it should be updated and what the benefits of doing so are, versus sticking to the status quo. In a Nintex survey, 67% of employees reported that broken or inefficient processes in their companies prevented them from reaching their fullest potential. Don't let that happen to your team.
  • Find specific ways to model a cultural shift so you organically inspire others to follow along.
  • Learn where gaps are — especially ones you might not be focused on, but perhaps should at least have awareness of — and work to fill them as appropriate, based on urgency.

Rebellion Sparks Transformation

Scott: I want to leave our audience with one final takeaway. What’s the connection between rebellious talent and successful talent? 

Francesca: It's not the creative environment that helps rebels thrive. It’s an environment where a rebellious spirit is considered healthy. There is nothing scary about rebels. They are highly valued leaders, because they take the time to analyze what works and what doesn’t at their company, and have the courage to unleash positive change.

Rebel leaders are clear on what rules aren’t worth attaching themselves to. And then from there, they operate within an organization’s rules, letting their rebellion steer the way. 

The more experience you have, the more comfortable you become, and then you’re more likely to live outside the lines. I say, let’s push the boundaries a bit. Ask more questions.  And always stay curious. When you embody those characteristics, that’s the ultimate definition of success.