Years ago, one of my mentors, Brian, told me about a powerful professional persona called “The Respected Rebel”. A respected rebel thrives as a benevolent disruptor and innovator while honouring the chain of command. To be one means pioneering bold, yet simple, solutions that other people aren’t thinking of or are too timid to try. And it means telling the boss that she’s wrong. Ever since Brian shared with me the term, I’ve been learning and practicing the 10 qualities of respected rebels.
They live by their values
It’s easier to cultivate respect when people know where you stand. Respected rebels make their values known and wear them on their sleeve. For example, my persistent questions about the transportation choices of my friends and colleagues are entertained in meetings and at dinner parties, in part, because I ride my bicycle everywhere and openly espouse that others should try harder to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also, during a recent workshop about the value of diversity and inclusion a participant said that “God doesn’t make mistakes” in reference to honouring every person for exactly who they are – I’m not religious nor do I totally agree with such a statement , but I respected where this person was coming from because she was transparent about her values.
They blend confidence with compassion
Respected rebels have presence. When they speak people listen, but not because they’re the loudest or because they won’t stop talking, but because of their humility, empathy and their uncanny ability to understand where others are at very quickly. Being confident and compassionate means being kind to oneself and others when we fail and spreading around gratitude (because shameless self-promotion is super-annoying). A simple and rebellious thing that you can do at work is admitting that you don’t have all the answers and that you need help to find them.
They cultivate trust
“Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors,” says Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger in their HBR article about the importance of leading with warmth so as to build trusting and connected teams. I recommend building trust by giving it away – start with trusting others without making them prove themselves to you. In my experience, people rarely disappoint you when trust is given up front.
They are trendspotters
Respected rebels have ideas about the next (big) thing before many people have wrapped their heads around their purpose for the week. By living months – if not years – ahead, respected rebels are really good at connecting the dots between peoples’ work, organizational problems and opportunities, and a company’s strategic priorities. In fact, they probably think about such things for fun on Sunday mornings and reflect about them while journaling. Simply put, when you’re a respected rebel you not only have ideas about where your community is heading, but you have opinions and plans about the future, too.
They ask great questions
One of the reasons that respected rebels know what’s going on in their community (and what will happen, too) is because they know that being able to ask awesome questions is probably the greatest conversational tool that a leader can possess. Just like when we were kids, respected rebels are constantly poking at the world around them with lots of “why?” and “why not?” questions because they know that questions reveal truth, empower others and build brainpower, too.
They are disruptive
The status quo is not acceptable for respected rebels. They want to change and tinker and make things work smoother. Phrases like “we’ve always done it this way” will often motivate a respected rebel to create and showcase a better way. Something that I learned from Karl Wegert, a now retired Bishop’s University History professor, was that it was okay to disagree with the professor and let her or him know that s/he was incorrect. I’m lucky to have cultivated the ability to argue – politely and well – with people in authority from a relatively young age, and it has served me well in my career.
They have strong networks of influence
Contrary to popular (or perhaps kinda nerdy) opinion, respected rebels aren’t Han Solo, Ellen Ripley or Shaft. These people didn’t create impactful, community-wide changes through other people very often. Through vulnerability, empathy, trust, smarts, and charisma, respected rebels have a knack for inspiring others with their ideas. Fast Company’s Nick Nanton and J.W. Dicks argue that “…knowledge and skill are never enough – unless you possess the influence to make the world take notice.” Trailblazing, toolmaking, teamwork, and translation are the keys to persuading people to do what you want.
They can (and do) move quickly
One of the things about me that makes people nervous (mostly in a good way) is that I can bring an idea to market really fast. Consequently, my colleagues watch their language around me and often pepper phrases like “we’re just talking” or “this is just an idea” into our conversations. Respected rebels aren’t reckless – in fact, they love doing homework and thinking ideas through – it’s that they pair action with knowledge in a way that gets results. For the record, I would never pretend that I’ve mastered even half of the stuff on this list, but turning an idea into an awesome thing is something that I’m pretty good at.
They honour hierarchy
Brian always – always – reinforced that the word “respect” in respected rebel goes two ways. “At the end of the day, when the decision is made, and it’s not yours, you need to get in line, follow orders, and work harder than anyone else to achieve the goal” is my paraphrased sentence of what he told me many times. Respected rebels are the player on the basketball team who challenges the coaches play calling and, if asked, would run through a wall if they thought it would be the best thing for the team.
They are committed to collective success
We are all in service of something greater than ourselves (or at least we should be). Respected rebels know that the community comes first – one of the reasons that their questions are embraced and their disruptive ideas catch on is because people understand that their ego has nothing to do with the work. As Fast Company’s John Boyle and Keven Klustner say, we need collective leadership:
That means having more of the right people in the right places, more heads solving problems, and more points of view in the decision-making process. It means greater interactivity and interdependence, as well as distributed influence and fluid collaboration. And it means shared responsibility and accountability up, down and across the organization.
So there it is. An introduction to the characteristics and attributes of respected rebels. Now that you know what it takes to be a benevolent disruptor – a leader of positive rebellion – in your community, be responsible and enjoy yourself as you transform this knowledge into action.