ARTICLE: Unleash Your Inner Rebel
Updated: May 1
In an age of constant change, it pays to be trailblazer. Harvard author Francesca Gino draws on her experiences studying the behavior of business leaders and organizations in her new book, “Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life,” to identify the common traits and practices among successful renegades that give them their creative and competitive edge.
What makes rule-breakers successful, and how can we tap into our inner rebel?
Positive deviance: Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who wrote the book “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef,” studied traditional Italian recipes carefully, and in the spirit of preserving tradition not to mess with these dishes, transformed them into innovative dishes. His three-Michelin-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was named the best restaurant in the world in 2016. Rather than breaking rules destructively, he did so constructively.
Successful boundary-pushing: you don’t have to be born a rebel. Use your talents more often in the same way as successful people like Steve Jobs or Chef Bottura. In all sorts of businesses, five talents that seem to be shared are novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity. Rebelling means leaving behind what’s comfortable, familiar, and known to create something new.
Unpredictability: When Greg Dyke became general director of the BBC, the organization was very much troubled. Conventional managerial advice would encourage him to lay out a clear vision, then delegate to execute it. Instead, he spent five months traveling to various BBC offices, even the most remote ones in the U.K., showing up in the cafeteria to ask employees how he could be helpful and what they thought needed to change. Rather than giving orders and dictating answers to the problems he saw, he asked questions, and by going against what others expected he would do, he gained everyone’s respect and employees were eager to help him in the mission.
Knowing when it’s appropriate to push the boundaries: Organizations that have done this successfully make it clear when rules should be broken and when they should not. The leaders of a Chicago-based money management firm want people to be authentic—their employees are free to disagree with and challenge each other—but everyone in the firm knows which rules should not be broken. Before a letter goes out to a client, three people must review it to make sure that it’s clear, because the company’s reputation with its clients is so important.
The eight principles of rebel leadership: Seek out the new; Encourage constructive dissent; Open conversations, don’t close them; Reveal yourself and reflect; Learn everything and then forget everything; Find freedom in constraints; Learn from the trenches; Foster happy accidents.