Are You a Rebel or a Leader?

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Credits: Harvard Business Review, Nilofer Merchant

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.

Crash Landing

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When you were young, you’d wonder whether your swing could flip over the metal bar at the top, swing you all the way around and throw you to the ground bruised and broken. When you were a kid, you though it could happen, but you weren’t afraid. All grown up; you know it can’t happen, but you’re filled with fear. You swing slower, instead of pumping for the sky. You don’t jump off, you slow yourself to a stop. You’d never fling yourself into air mid-swing, because you’re no longer dreaming of flying, You’re just worrying about how you’re going to land.

New Year Resolutions – 2011

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I believe I managed to clear most of my 2010 resolutions, each to various extents. I’m sure there are people out there who would agree with me! Glad to know that I’m on a run on accomplishing my resolutions and I’m not intending to break the trend this year! Here’s the next list you guys can keep me accountable to!

1) Be a better listener
Gideon actually mentioned to me before that I actually observe & listen quite a lot, just that I not very good at appearing interested, due to the fact that I often look away to ponder about their words when they are talking to me. Jo Lee also mentioned that I’m actually quite bad with the eye contact thing, especially when I’m not the one talking.

To the people who talk to me often: Remind me!

2) Be a better speaker
I think this is my only area of strength, and as I take on new roles, I realized that I’m not as good as I want to be. Got to work on it. Much more.

3) Stop fidgeting
I have serious ADD issues. Period.

Objectivity/Majority

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Objectivity was never dependent on majority.

Today I was thinking about the twelve spies that Moses send to explore Canaan. We know how all but two of them came back with less than favorable reports. I couldn’t help but wonder, if we were Moses, how would we have reacted?

Of course, knowing how the story ended, we may be quick to dismiss the other ten of little faith and only Joshua and Caleb truly trusted God. However, if we were placed at that exact crossroad of decision-making, who would we have trusted?

Would we have stuck to our guns, believing that God has given us the land, or would we have asked for a “re-evaluation”, called for another exploration trip and allowing “common sense” to prevail? Mind you, it wasn’t the case that Joshua and Caleb’s opinions were obviously more valuable. If we were to comb through the passage, we would notice that ALL twelve of them were leaders in their respective tribe.

Imagine this – Would you be…
Taking the opinion of 2 unit leaders or 10 other unit leaders?
Heeding the advice of 2 pastors, or 10 other pastors?

Would we have flowed with the ten, heeding the “wise counsel” of the majority while dismissing the other two radicals as overly optimistic and blindly naive? We might even affirm them for their enthusiastic but “unrefined” passion!

In a world that is so accustomed to the concept of democracy, such things are less foreign than it seems.

What scares me the most is that I can totally imagine that happening to myself!

The Purpose Driven Declaration

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Today I am stepping across the line. I’m tired of waffling and I’m finished with wavering, I’ve made my choice, the verdict is in, and my decision is irrevocable. I’m going God’s way. There’s no turning back now!

I will live the rest of my life serving God’s purposes with God’s people on God’s planet for God’s glory. I will use my life to celebrate his presence, cultivate his character, participate in his family, demonstrate his love, and communicate his Word.

Since my past has been forgiven, and I have a purpose for living, and a home awaiting in heaven, I refuse to waste any more time or energy on shallow living, petty thinking, trivial talking, thoughtless doing, useless regretting, hurtful resenting, or faithless worrying. Instead I will magnify God, grow to maturity, serve in ministry, and fulfill my mission in the membership of his family.

Because this life is preparation for the next, I will value worship over wealth, “we” over “me,” character over comfort, service over status, and people over possessions, position, and pleasures. I know what matters most, and I’ll give it all I’ve got. I’ll do the best I can with what I have for Jesus Christ today.

I won’t be captivated by culture, manipulated by critics, motivated by praise, frustrated by problems, debilitated by temptation, or intimidated by the devil. I’ll keep running my race with my eyes on the goal, not the sidelines or those running by me. When times get tough, and I get tired, I won’t back up, back off, back down, back out, or backslide. I’ll just keep moving forward by God’s grace. I’m Spirit-led, purpose driven, and mission-focused, so I cannot be bought, I will not be compromised, and I shall not quit until I finish the race.

I’m a trophy of God’s amazing grace, so I will be gracious to everyone, grateful for every day, and generous with everything God entrusts to me.

To my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I say, “However, whenever, wherever, and whatever you ask me to do, my answer in advance is yes! Wherever you lead and whatever the cost I’m ready. Anytime. Anywhere. Anyway. Whatever it takes, Lord; whatever it takes! I want to be used by you in such a way, that on that final day I’ll hear you say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful one. Come on in, and let the eternal party begin!'”

Credits: Rick Warren

Enjoy Turbulence

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Typed on board a flight to Auckland

Enjoy turbulence.

Embrace it. Welcome it. Get used to it. Because it means that you are flying. Crossing new boundaries. Going somewhere. Progressing.

Anyone who has never experienced turbulence before has never attempted to fly. Those who tasked themselves to avoid mess and side step danger fail to realize that they are also getting rid of their own growth opportunities. Those who avoid turbulence avoid growth.

Playing it safe will never get you anywhere. Literally.