How to Be a Work Rebel
The Right Way to Be an Unconventional Leader
“REBELLING” AT WORK ISN’T usually thought of in positive terms, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino admits. “Usually if we close our eyes and think about the rebels in our business,” she says, “we think about the jerks, the showoffs…people who are troublemakers, people who break rules just for the sake of breaking rules, or the contrarians.”
No sane company would actively seek that out.
And yet Gino, the author of Rebel Talent, believes that cultivating your own rebellious edge might be crucial to helping your company—and your career. She recently joined me on my weekly Newsweek interview show Better (Thursdays 12 pm ET/9 am PT) to discuss what it really means to be a rebellious leader, and why we need rebels now more than ever.
As she says, “Being rebellious can be constructive, rather than destructive.” The best rebels, according to Gino, leverage their distaste for the status quo to “bring about positive change.”
Here are four ways that you can do it yourself.
Lose the arrogance.
Rebels may opt for unconventional solutions, but the best of them are driven by a genuine desire to help and improve the organization. Gino says a key challenge for rebels is to keep perspective and not get pushy or provocative when change isn’t coming as fast as they’d like. There’s a danger at times of seeming arrogant, so she suggests an approach more along the lines of, “I understand what’s there, and let me suggest, with respect, a different way of looking at this and moving this forward.” She advises prospective rebels: “Despite the fact that you might have a lot of experience, or even be the subject expert on the topic, you’re humble enough to stay open with your mind and broaden your perspective.”
Favor curiosity over uncertainty.
When things are changing fast, it’s easy to feel unmoored. But rebels have developed an adaptation that Gino lauds. “When people retain their curiosity, which is a major fuel of the rebels,” she says, “they are able to lower their stress or make sure that the stress is not paralyzing, but enhances their motivation to think differently.” We can’t avoid change or uncertainty, but staying curious and treating it as a potential opportunity for learning or exploration can help reframe what might otherwise be an unsettling situation.
Rebels are made, not born.
According to Gino, anyone can choose to become a rebel—it just takes a little imagination and a willingness to examine yourself. When she first moved to the United States from Italy, she took speech lessons to reduce her accent, which she now views as an counterproductive strategy. “Maybe initially my instinct [to fit in] was wrong,” she says. “I’m still on the journey.” She believes that being rebellious, in many ways, is about fighting the common tendency to conform. Instead, she says, “We should be authentic. We [take the] usual ways of working for granted, but we should be curious, instead. There is a lot of fighting— internal fighting—to bring out our rebel talent.”
Be the best captain for your crew.
In her research, Gino found inspiration for rebel leadership from one of the earliest examples of rebel talent in action—pirate ships of the 16th century. “The crew was in charge of choosing the captain,” she says, and could remove him if he wasn’t behaving well. For Gino, that sparked a thought-provoking question: “Am I the type of captain that my crew would choose as a leader today?” For instance, we can think about whether we’re encouraging curiosity among our employees and team members, whether we’re willing to try new ideas or approaches—and whether we ask thought-provoking questions, versus just giving orders.
To sum it up, leaders who embrace rebelliousness in themselves and others open the door for more authenticity, creativity and better ways of working. Says Gino: “If we allow for this to happen, people are going to thrive at work. And given how much [time] we spend at work, isn’t that a good goal to have?”
→ Dorie Clark, author of ENTREPRENEURIAL YOU and Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor, hosts NEWSWEEK’S weekly interview series, BETTER, on Thursdays at 12 pm ET/9 am PT at newsweek.com/linkedinlive. Sign up for updates at dorieclark.com.
“Usually if we close our eyes and think about the rebels in our business, we think about the jerks.”