How to Be a Rebel Leader

New Book: In the book Rebel Talent, Francesca Gino argues companies should encourage rebellion in their workplaces. Quiz: Discover what type of rebel you really are.
  • Author Interview

The 8 Principles of Rebel Leadership

Interview by Carmen Nobel

On a fateful visit to the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Mass., Francesca Gino came across a cookbook called Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. Written by Massimo Bottura, chef and owner of the Michelin three-star-rated restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, the book was filled with nontraditional takes on traditional Italian dishes. The recipes astonished Gino, who grew up in Italy, where culinary traditions are a matter of great national pride.

“In Italy, you’re not supposed to mess around with traditions in general, especially when they are about recipes that have been passed on for generations,” says Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration and co-head of the Negotiation, Organization, and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School. “You just don’t do that! And yet, here was a person, a rebel, who had found success by breaking rules and breaking traditions.”

Curiosity piqued, Gino, who is a behavioral scientist, embarked on a quest to find successful rebels. She flew to Italy to meet Bottura. She interviewed Chesley Sullenberger, the airline pilot who landed a 150,000-pound jetliner on top of the Hudson River after his plane lost both engines in a bird strike. She wrote about Ava DuVernay, the groundbreaking film director of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time. She studied the 18th-century pirate Blackbeard, whose ship, she says, “was arguably more democratic than America was at the time.” And she considered her young son, Alex, who puts red food coloring in his milk sometimes, just to shake up his breakfast routine.

The stories of many successful rebels, the lessons they impart, and the behavioral science behind these lessons are collected in Gino’s new book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, due out tomorrow from Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. In the book, Gino argues that business leaders should strive for and encourage rebellion in their workplaces. And she makes the case that rebellion would make life more fulfilling for all of us.

“When I think of rebels, I think of people who break rules to explore new ideas and create positive change,” Gino says. “These are people who are doing good in the world.”

The eight principles of rebel leadership

Rebel Talent explains that while every rebel is unique, they tend to share the same five core strengths: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity.

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge recently sat down with Gino to discuss the steps leaders can take to engender rebel talent in their workforces—and in themselves. She calls these “The Eight Principles of Rebel Leadership.”

  1. Seek out the new: “It’s very easy for us all to fall back into routines and mindlessly follow them, day after day,” Gino says. “What this principle allows us to do, even in situations where routines and traditions exist, is to break away from them and find inspiration.”

    For business leaders, this could mean introducing employees to things that aren’t obviously related to the organization. Consider Chef Bottura’s dishes, which are often inspired by music and visual arts. (“Tribute to Thelonious Monk,” for example: black cod served with white daikon radish and green onion on a bed of squid ink, meant to represent the jazz musician’s keyboard.) Bottura aims to inspire his staff by playing music in the kitchen during meal prep and hanging paintings throughout the restaurant. “Even in the staff bathroom you have prints of different pieces of art,” Gino says. “And the reason that the art is there is that when you look at it, you start asking questions.”

  2. Encourage constructive dissent: “As humans, we often focus on just one perspective, and generally it’s our own,” Gino says. “Whether it’s in conversations or in meetings, we often seek out the opinions of people who have something similar to offer. What rebels do is fight that instinct. They find ways to steer some conflict or encourage disagreement.”

    Gino cites Rachael Chong, CEO of the New York-based nonprofit organization Catchafire, who seeks out dissenting opinions from her workforce from the get-go, including when she interviews job candidates. “When she hires new people, she basically looks for people who disagree with her,” Gino says.

  3. Open conversations, don’t close them: “Rebels are willing to keep their minds open,” says Gino, who recommends that business leaders take a cue from the world of improvisational comedy.

    A cardinal rule in improv is that one person must always accept the premise of whatever another person says, and then expand upon the thought, such as saying, “yes, and…” rather than “yes, but….” At Pixar, this technique is called “plussing.” Gino explains how it works in Rebel Talent: “The point of plussing is to improve ideas without using judgmental language. You add to, or ‘plus,’ what has been said. Instead of criticizing a sketch, the director will build on a starting point by using the expression, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if we…’ This encourages a collaborative attitude. Someone else might jump in and add her own plus.”

  4. Reveal yourself—and reflect: Rebel leaders focus on their strengths, but are honest about their weaknesses and make an effort to reflect on both. “They don’t hide who they are, or pretend to know, or be something that they are not,” Gino writes.

    She cites Patricia Fili-Krushel, whose jobs have included chair of NBCUniversal News Group, president of ABC Television Network, and CEO of WebMD. “As the leader of WebMD, Fili-Krushel met a group of engineers in Silicon Valley, all men,” Gino writes. “When they asked her, right off the bat, what she knew about engineering, she made a zero with her fingers. ‘This is how much I know about engineering,’ she told them. ‘However, I do know how to run businesses and I’m hoping you can teach me what I need to know about your world.’”

    “You reveal yourself, and, in the process, you’re gaining respect and status in the eyes of others,” Gino says.

  5. Learn everything—then forget everything: Successful rebels understand the importance of mastering the fundamentals of their trade or industry, but never let themselves become slaves to the rules. “They have a deep understanding of what’s there, and that’s the basis that allows them to transform and create,” Gino says.

    Take Bottura, who spent years studying the aging process of Italy’s most famous cheese before developing a signature dish called Le cinque stagionature del Parmigiano Reggiano in diverse consistenze e temperature, or “the five different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in five different textures and temperatures.” The 24-month-old cheese is made into a hot soufflé, the 36-month-old cheese becomes a chilled foam, and so on. “It’s really about developing a deep understanding of the thing that is already there before you break, transform, and create,” Gino says, “…and it’s very delicious.”

  6. Find freedom in constraints: Many people think they can’t innovate because the parameters of their job are too constrained. Rebels work through and even find inspiration in constraints. Consider Captain Sullenberger, constrained by federal regulations, not to mention two disabled engines, when he made the creative and heroic decision to use the Hudson River as a runway. Or the author Dr. Seuss, who made a bet with the cofounder of Random House that he could write a whole book with only fifty different words. The bestselling result: Green Eggs and Ham.

    “Rebels work through the constraints, and, if anything, the constraints become a source for thinking differently about the problem. The constraints don’t hold you back, but they’re a platform you use to think creatively about the situation,” says Gino.

  7. Lead from the trenches: “Another interesting aspect about the rebels I met is that they often take on roles or activities that you wouldn’t expect them to take,” Gino says. In short, rebel leaders are willing to get their hands dirty, and their employees respect them for that.

    “Napoleon would not have spent all his time in the executive suite,” she writes. “Chef Bottura is often found sweeping the streets outside his restaurant, unloading deliveries, and cleaning the kitchen.”

  8. Foster happy accidents: “Too often, leaders believe that success depends on hierarchical command and control,” Gino writes in Rebel Talent. “Rebels, on the other hand, know the value of a happy accident. They believe in workspaces and teams that cross-pollinate. The rebel realizes that a mistake may unlock a breakthrough.”

    For example, Steve Jobs deliberately designed the Pixar headquarters such that employees in various departments would have to run into each other regularly. If a computer scientist encountered an animator at the employee mailroom every day, then there was a good possibility that the two of them would start sharing ideas.

    Sometimes happy accidents are actual accidents that rebels turned into something wonderful. At Toscanini’s, an ice cream shop in Cambridge, Mass., one of the most popular flavors is burnt caramel-created decades ago when the chief ice cream maker got distracted and, yes, accidentally burned the caramel. Rather than toss out the batch, he put it on the menu board that day, and it has stayed there ever since. At Osteria Francescana, the menu includes a dessert called “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart,” which has a similar backstory.

    “It’s a reminder for all of us to design things—whether teams or workplaces—such that connections are more likely to happen, and happy accidents are more likely to occur,” Gino says.

Quiz: What Kind of Rebel Are You?

Francesca Gino's short quiz will help you learn which type of rebel, out of four possibilities, you tend to be. You’ll receive a short explanation of your type and a few tips on how you can further deploy and develop your talents. Take the quiz.

  • Book Excerpt

Rebel Leadership Lessons from Pixar

from: Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life
by Francesca Gino

Pixar President and Cofounder Ed Catmull has a large, bright workspace on the second floor of the Steve Jobs building. Windows overlook green lawns, and toy versions of characters from my favorite Pixar movies fill the shelves of his office. When we met, Catmull sat on a couch in his office across from me, dressed in a colorful short-sleeved shirt and jeans. He told me that, despite all the signs of comfort and whimsy I saw around me, Pixar had experienced real trouble. In 2013, seven years after being acquired by Disney, the studio had gone through some tough times. Film budgets were rising, the DVD market was shrinking, and production costs were soaring. Pixar management was also increasingly feeling that a key aspect of the company culture—employees’ willingness to speak their minds freely—was not what it used to be.

“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms,” Catmull said. He went on to note that when a creative group draws on unvarnished perspectives of all its members and the collective knowledge, decision-making stands to benefit. Candor is key to effective collaboration, says Catmull. “Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments,” he told me. This belief has been at the core of Pixar’s culture since the company was founded. At its inception, Pixar formed a group called the “Braintrust,” which consisted of four or five Pixar creative leaders who oversee development on all movies, meeting every few months to assess progress and challenges. Catmull described the Braintrust in simple terms: “Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.”

The whole idea behind the Braintrust is that members should speak freely, arguing without fear of conflict, with the interests of the company in mind. The group has no authority, so when members evaluate a movie in production, the director can decide whether or not to follow any of their specific suggestions.

“All employees are invited to screenings at the very early stages of a film, long before a story line is finalized, and everyone is welcome to give notes”

In the 2010s, Pixar was expanding and growing, so it hired more and more people. The new recruits were excited, sure, but the talent in the room was usually pretty intimidating and left them nervous about sharing their own ideas. Executives decided to try something bold to improve the situation. In early 2013, Catmull and a few other managers began planning a special day, Notes Day, during which Pixar would shut down to elicit honest feedback from its employees. Notes Day was an expansion of the spirit of the Braintrust. Catmull and other executives at Pixar wanted to bring the same style of safe sharing to the entire organization. For Notes Day, employees were invited to brainstorm ways to improve the company, drawing on topics and problems they themselves had identified. So that employees would feel comfortable offering candid feedback, managers were excluded from Notes Day.

Notes Day was inspired by a widespread practice among studios of screening in-progress films for executives, who offer written suggestions and criticisms, or “notes.” At most studios, directors are generally encouraged, if not required, to follow the direction of these notes. But Pixar decided to handle notes differently. All employees are invited to screenings at the very early stages of a film, long before a story line is finalized, and everyone is welcome to give notes. Moreover, directors do not have to use the notes they receive; the notes are merely suggestions. Pixar’s version of the practice is more like crowdsourcing.

Notes Day applied the same principles to the overall practices of the company, as opposed to a specific film. One initial goal of Notes Day was to solicit ideas from employees on how to lower costs by 10 percent. Pixar executives asked employees to prepare themselves for Notes Day by imagining they’d been transported four years into the future and to answer the following questions: “The year is 2017. Both of this year’s films were completed well under budget. What innovations helped these productions meet their budget goals? What are some of the specific things we did differently?” Questions were sent out to all employees, generating over four thousand responses on more than one thousand unique topics, such as reducing implicit gender bias in Pixar films, shortening production time, and improving the workplace.

Out of the thousands of responses, executives chose 106 issues for employees to discuss in separate sessions. The sessions were spread across three buildings on Pixar’s main campus, and employees could choose for themselves which sessions to attend. Trained internal facilitators led each session, which culminated with specific proposals, brainstorms, or best practices. The group also assigned certain members to be their “idea advocates”—those who would help advance their suggestions. After identifying their recommendation, employees were treated to hot dogs and beer. Out of the 106 topics, the company immediately started working on 21. Some were small changes, like implementing a faster, more secure way of delivering film cuts to directors. But even the smallest changes added up to something bigger. “They were changing Pixar—meaningfully and for the better,” Catmull said. And improving efficiency may not have been the most notable benefit. “I believe the biggest payoff of Notes Day was that we made it safer for people to say what they thought,” Catmull writes in his book Creativity, Inc. “Notes Day made it OK to disagree.”

Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books. Excerpted from Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. Copyright 2018 by Francesca Gino. All rights reserved.

Quiz: What Kind of Rebel Are You?

Francesca Gino's short quiz will help you learn which type of rebel, out of four possibilities, you tend to be. You’ll receive a short explanation of your type and a few tips on how you can further deploy and develop your talents. Take the quiz.

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