Two cups of coffee into a crisp November morning and I stumble upon this tweet from the SWIFT innovation team’s Peter Vander Auwera:

A couple of clicks and another cup of java later and I realize that the good rebel versus bad rebel characteristics Lois Kelly lays out are too black and white for the real-life I’ve experienced over the past 15 years playing the role of corporate renegade in companies as big as IBM (“Faster Company”), Unisys and Alcatel-Lucent (“Alcatel-Lucent Is Damn Serious About Their Plans To Make Wireless Carriers Relevant”).

Never has the fluid, gray area of corporate rebellion been more pronounced or exciting than the last two years. Led by one of the best (and most tireless) change agents I’ve ever known, Laura Merling, we’ve built a team that not only straddles the line between good and bad rebel, but frequently spends time on each side in an effort to not only change a company’s culture, but also an industry’s.

We’ve been the corporate renegades, as Peter calls us in “Pirates, Rebels, Mercenaries and Innovators.” We’ve been the “brave (or foolhardy) enough to stand against the prevailing doctrine of the organization and seriously argue for another way,” as recently-retired CIA executive Carmen Medina describes corporate heretics. We’ve been called a lot of other things, too.

And that’s why I disagree with Kelly on the hard dividing line between good and bad rebels.

Looking at our team — the personalities, the drive, the success — I believe the best corporate rebels straddle the line between good and bad, embodying a healthy mix of both qualities. Below, in bold, are the good and bad qualities described by Kelly. The straight text that follows is commentary based on my direct experience:

Bad rebels break rules…Good rebels change rules. Often times, you have to break rules to jumpstart change. The consumerization of IT didn’t start because someone asked for permission to change the rules.

Bad rebels complain…Good rebels create. You have to make the squeaky wheel squeak louder in order to get other parts of the organization to realize things are broken.

Bad rebels assert…Good rebels ask questions. I’ve never met a renegade who wasn’t sure of herself or who wasn’t insanely inquisitive. Renegades know in their hearts and guts that they are right and ask the questions necessary to prove it.

Bad rebels are me-focused…Good rebels are mission-focused. Renegades often work on the fringes of an organization. They are given vague missions and asked to accomplish those missions with little organizational air cover. You bet rebels are me-focused; they better be. It’s called survival. But you can also rest-assured that they think day and night about their mission.

Bad rebels are angry…Good rebels have passion. You can have passion for love (or lust) and you can have passion to right wrongs. The passion to right what is wrong burns from an anger that things can and should be fixed. Anger is the fire of passion.

Bad rebels are pessimists….Good rebels are optimists. The best optimists are those who have already (and constantly) think about what could go wrong. Imagining the worst lets you build for the best.

Bad rebels are energy-sapping…Good rebels are energy-generating. The best corporate rebels generate excitement about what they are doing. They also sap the energy of those (organizations and individuals) who are unaccustomed to maintaining the rapid pace required to drive change.

Bad rebels alienate…Good rebels attract. Change is hard. Corporate renegades alienate those who find it difficult or impossible to change. Alienation is good. It weeds out those holding an organization back from growth and innovation. But it is only good when the renegade’s mission attracts more than it alienates.

Bad rebels see problems. Good rebels see opportunities. Opportunity is found in addressing the problems nobody else sees or is able to fix. Good renegades are constantly on the lookout for problems.

Bad rebels vocalize problems…Good rebels socialize opportunities. Too many times in large organizations, the problems become part of the organizational fabric. We know this as “Yeah, it’s broken, but we’ll never fix it.” Vocalizing the problem — giving voice to the frustrated — is how rebels socialize the path to opportunity.

Bad rebels worry that something will happen…Good rebels wonder what will happen. Corporate rebels aren’t afraid of failure. They don’t ask for permission. They try things because they have a gut feel that something good might come out of it. They live by the motto: “What’s the worst they can do, fire me?”

Bad rebels point fingers…Good rebels pinpoint causes. Sometimes it’s necessary — especially in large, established (read: bureaucratic, political) organizations — to out those who block change because of their own personal or professional fear. Unfortunately, sometimes the role of a renegade is to get personal for the benefit of the larger cause.

Bad rebels doubt…Good rebels believe. There is no such thing as a doubting rebel. A questioning rebel? Absolutely. But no rebel ever doubts that the change he’s trying to achieve can’t be accomplished. Yes, renegades hit hurdles, but they always believe in success.

Bad rebels are social loners…Good rebels are social. At an individual level, corporate rebels are inherently social. They are experiential by nature, looking to soak up all that is around them — people, places, sights, sounds, tastes. However, when a team of renegades bands together within an organization, they often become social loners (at least within the social structure of the organization). This happens because they are working on the fringes, pushing change that threatens the comfy existence of organizational lifers, taking the bold risks few are brave enough to take. Corporate renegades realize that success isn’t a popularity contest.

Being a corporate renegade is a constant life of adrenaline rush. It’s a selfless job that nobody ever (really) gets credit for. You’re a mercenary. Many envy what you get to do, but few are willing to accept the sacrifices it requires (personal and professional). It is a career that is never black and white…which is why the best renegades sometimes have to be the bad renegades.

 

4 Comments

  1. I’ll agree with you to a point. But I think there is a slight danger in “corporate rebellion.” Too many people self-style themselves as “rebels” — because they like to think of themselves as one, or because the self-image allows them to feel less “sold out” for having joined a corporation, or because they confuse “pissing people off” with “pushing envelopes” or “forcing changes.”

    There are plenty of successful corporate rebels who’ve done many of the things you point out in your post, Mike. But there are even more who just rebel for the sake of it or because they’ve assigned themselves the role of being the “rebel” without even understanding what they’re trying to achieve. A rebel with a sense of purpose is Jobsian. A rebel who just likes the feel of being a rebel is Charlie Sheen.

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  2. No argument here. The best do it not because they want to, but because they have to…because they are rebels with a cause (sorry, just keeping with your Jobsian/Sheen analogies).

    Like

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