Are you a Rebel or a Leader?

Everyone was being so agreeable. The CEO nodded, the VPs agreed, the Directors were polished in their reviews. All the content was “good,” the timelines “reasonable,” the budgets “sufficient.”

We were in a meeting to review the roadmap for the company’s new product. And it had all the hallmarks of a Potemkin village.

I wanted to accept the consensus as a sign that the company had rounded the corner on its 3-year slog to be more relevant in their market. I knew that the new head of engineering and the head of product management had worked through a ton of issues to get to this review meeting prepared. Maybe the company was (ahem) finally going to make products that were competitive.

But just then, the CEO interrupted and asked the product managers in the back row of seats, “What are the weaknesses with this roadmap?”

Some long seconds passed. The product managers looked at each other, then at their VP, and then, finally, to the CEO.

And then this small voice, untraceable for a moment because it was so small, started to explain how this plan would put the company in 2nd place in almost every aspect of innovation or time to market. The voice grew in clarity and volume. Then the person associated with the voice stood up and started to point out other areas where the plan was lacking, and where it would lead the company to miss the market. Underlining specifics, the tone of the voice implied these points were well known within the group working most closely on it, but dismissed by others.

You might think that the room celebrated this passionate voice.

But they didn’t. At least, not yet. You see, the person with the voice came off as a rebel. By my estimate, at least half the room was judging the person as being indelicate and the other half was judging the head of product management for not controlling his ranks. No one seemed grateful that an important issue was being raised.

Perhaps you can think back to your own “rebel” situation in your organization. Such moments are rarely hailed, at least as they’re happening. And yet any of us could see ourselves as rebels, heretics, or misfits who are challenging the customs and norms of our group. American culture certainly celebrates this idea of challenging the status quo — we tend to think of ourselves as a nation of minutemen, pioneers, and entrepreneurs.

There is a fine line between a rebel and a leader, though we tend to conflate the two.
A rebel resists conformity. Sometimes the rebel’s challenging voice helps an organization to discover a gap, push themselves to innovate, and ultimately to thrive. So the challenging, dissenting voice can, at times, be tied to leadership. But to be effective, we need to understand key distinctions:

    • To rebel is to push against something. To lead is to advocate for an idea.
    • To rebel is to say “heck no.” To lead is to say “we will.”
    • To rebel is to deny the authority of others. To lead is to invoke your own authority.

Most leaders we celebrate today didn’t start out perceived as such. For years, Martin Luther King, Jr. was viewed as a heretic before being recognized as an icon for heralding a new age of civil rights. Apple’s Steve Jobs was once viewed as an ideologue for design and is now acknowledged as the premier technology visionary.

Sometimes whether you view someone as a rebel or a leader depends on your vantage point. Take Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington DC’s public school system. The recent founder of the organization Students First, Rhee is widely viewed as a pioneer of educational reform by parents — but as “conflict oriented” by the labor unions influencing today’s educational institutions. History will tell the rest of her story as rebel or leader.

Yet it is certainly not comfortable to be the gadfly — and a lot of careers have ended over “not fitting in.”

So perhaps we could use a more neutral word: protagonist. A protagonist is a principal champion of a cause or program or action. The protagonist does not wait for permission to lead, innovate, or strategize. They do what is right for the firm, without regard to status. Their goal is to do what’s good for the whole.

Protagonists help organizations become more competitive. After all, the word compete comes from the Latin com petire, which means “to seek together.” Their intent is to not to antagonize, but to drive towards something. Protagonists are willing to name things others don’t yet see; they point to new horizons. Without them, the storyline never changes.

Let’s go back to our product manager with the disruptive voice. She was not shunned or dismissed for having the courage to raise tough issues in front of the CEO. She was told to join in the effort. The CEO asked the heads of engineering and product management to circle back once they had a chance to work through the details of the issues she raised. And a much different roadmap developed, through many pizza-filled evenings, and some new demands requiring reallocation of resources. The systems and rewards inside this organization allowed them to not reject the rebel, but to demand her leadership.

Maybe we can resolve the conflict this way: You can be a rebel without being a leader, but you can rarely be an effective leader without also having a little bit of rebel in you.


(Note: This was originally published by Harvard Business Review, January 25, 2011; please contribute comments to that conversation here:

4 Replies

  1. I like this. Although I think a true Leader is what you describe as a Rebel. And that what you call leader is more like a manager. But whatever the words we use I think we agree that this world needs a lot more people who dare argue and advocate for their point of view against the social dynamic. People who dare to say stop and ask “why are we even doing this in the first place?”

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