Here’s to the Rebellious Leaders

As a leader, it’s easy to get into a pattern of repetition, of behaving as others have done before. But while this might feel safe and easy it is no way to achieve anything new or make a mark on the world. No one remembers the placeholder leaders, those who just kept things as they were. The real leaders are the ones who break with convention. They are the rebels.

Being a Rebel Leader

Being a true rebel leader means more than dressing down and spouting the latest buzzwords. The trappings of rebellion and its substance are often very different things, and those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk not only waste others’ time, they are quickly seen through.

To be a truly rebellious leader means to look at the world with fresh eyes, thinking in new ways and acting on them. It means challenging assumptions at every turn, always being willing to ask ‘why?’, however uncomfortable the question makes people.

Rebellion is thoughtful, but to have an impact thought is not enough. A rebel leader must take their iconoclastic thinking and apply it to the world, taking risks to make a change.

It’s a daunting prospect, but we can take comfort in the evidence of how powerful rebel leaders are.

A Long Tradition

The world as we know it is founded on a long tradition of rebel leadership. The success of rebellious leadership is often forgotten because these rebel leaders become so influential that their positions of authority and ways of thinking become the norm.

Julius Caesar, whose very name became a title for those in power, started out as a rebel. With Rome’s republican government unable to govern the nation’s expanding territory, Caesar used new tactics to tackle threats beyond the border while seeking the stronger central government the Roman Empire needed. His approach was so controversial that his opponents assassinated him, only for his vision to become reality under his heirs.

In writing his 95 theses, Martin Luther challenged orthodox thinking in the Christian church, and in doing so set the course of Protestantism.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s plan to capture a hill at the Siege of Toulon went against the wisdom of other commanders there, but it won the siege and set him on a path to rule half of Europe.

The belief that all men were created equal went against every rule of mid-20th century South Africa, but in fighting for that belief, and in finding new ways to continue the fight, Nelson Mandela transformed not just a nation but a continent, reinvigorating modern Africa.

Over and again, history shows us that the greatest leaders are the rebels.

Becoming a Rebel Leader

Research into the neuroscience of leadership gives us an insight into what makes any successful leader, and so what rebel leaders are using to get it right.

Successful innovation – breaking out of the shell of familiar behavior – requires that we tap into two functions of the brain. One is the ‘default network’, which despite its name allows us to create new ideas and deeper insights. The other is the ‘control network’, which creates focus on a task. Those two things, innovation and focus, are vital to developing something new and rebellious, and to seeing it through to success.

Just because these tendencies are built into our brains doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. There are ways to engage with and develop these networks, allowing leaders to develop both their own rebel side and that of those around them. But it takes effort. Nothing good comes easily.

Refining Rebellion

Neuroscience also shows us why rebel leaders often struggle to have their ideas heard.

The human mind is not just abstract, but is rooted in the brain as an organ, and how you use that organ affects how you feel. New ideas engage the prefrontal cortex, a high-energy part of the brain that can be exhausting to use. Familiar patterns and activities use the basal ganglia, which requires far less exertion. So bringing in new, rebellious ideas can exhaust people, putting them off.

Successful rebel leadership therefore involves energizing people and finding ways to lead them into new patterns without exhausting them. Part of this is about focus, tapping into your own control network to keep you on message, not presenting new idea after new idea, but pursuing each one in turn through to success, developing the habit in people of following you.

Backwards as it might sound, rebellion is sometimes about not putting up a fight. Our default way of putting ideas forward is to fight our corner. But if you can avoid confrontation, submit to others and their sense of superior status, you can avoid exhausting them mentally, leaving them with the energy to engage with new ideas. As Mahatma Ghandi showed, submission can be a powerful tool of dissent and transformation.

Changing the World One Project at a Time

Being a rebel leader is not enough in itself. To be a successful rebel leader you must be focused, determined, and aware of others’ reactions. The key is not to wear them down but to win them over through an approach that is empathetic and persistent, that makes the new look familiar and so makes it easy for people to deal with change.

Great rebel leaders are innovators. In the long run they are recognized for great changes, even as they make the process of change feel familiar to those around them. The irony is, in many cases, that rebel leaders innovate by making others feel as if nothing were changing at all.

Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20 plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including healthcare, education, government, and people and potential (aka HR). In addition, Mark currently serves as Chairman of the Board for Behavioral Health Service North, a large behavioral health services provider in New York. He also actively serves on the faculty of the State University of New York (SUNY) and teaches in the School of Business and Economics; Department of Marketing and Entrepreneurship and the Department of Management, International Business and Information Systems. Mark holds an MBA and is highly recognized in the technology and healthcare space with credentials including MCSE and Paramedic. Most of Mark’s writing involves theoretical considerations and practical application, academics, change leadership, and other topics at the intersection of business, society, and humanity. Mark resides in New York with his wife Lynn, two children, and two Labradors. The greatest pursuit; “To be more in the Service of Others.”

  • Sarah Hutchins

    Love that you bring up that submission can be powerful and Ghandi. You need to be careful when deciding when to use it, but it is something that I’ve frequently used in my life that has brought about positive powerful changes. Sometimes the rebels aren’t the ones that yell the loudest.

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