5 leadership lessons from successful rule-breakers – An interview with Harvard Business School Professor – Dr. Francesca Gino

Behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino says rebels are good for business. While the term “rebel” often has negative connotations in the workplace, such as the disruptive colleague who isn’t a team player or the brilliant innovator who’s impossible to work with, Gino says engaging in rebellious behavior can actually benefit organizations […]

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Behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino says rebels are good for business.

While the term “rebel” often has negative connotations in the workplace, such as the disruptive colleague who isn’t a team player or the brilliant innovator who’s impossible to work with, Gino says engaging in rebellious behavior can actually benefit organizations while helping us lead more fulfilling lives.

“Rebels are not people who break rules just for the sake of breaking rules,” Gino says. “Rebels are people who break rules in a way that is constructive and positive for the organization. And they reap all sorts of benefits by doing so.”

In her book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, Gino shares real-life examples of rule-breakers who’ve succeeded in business and improved the world around them. Based on more than a decade of research, she says successful rebels share five characteristics that set them apart:

  1. Embrace vulnerability

Rebels aren’t afraid to lay it all on the line and reveal their weaknesses to others – in fact, they do so on a regular basis. Why? They know that displaying vulnerability is actually a strength and an essential ingredient to effective leadership.

“Often, we have the wrong intuition about what [vulnerability] means,” Gino says. “We might believe that by showing others we’re vulnerable, by showing others our weaknesses, that we’re going to be evaluated negatively…[but] when we make ourselves vulnerable, rebels gain respect and influence from others.”

  1. Pursue novelty

Rebels share a talent for pursuing novelty, a drive to always seek new challenges versus what’s familiar and comfortable. Stepping outside of your comfort zone may be an intimidating prospect, but according to Gino’s research, it pays off.

“One of the things that is true about rebels is that there are people who are okay feeling uncomfortable,” Gino says. “They’re okay feeling challenged and always look for novelty in the work that they do.”

She shares an example from a regional fast-food chain in the southern United States, where the general managers devised ways to inject novelty into what would have been an otherwise monotonous fast-food job. Employees may work almost automatically on an assembly line in identical restaurants, but the order in which they do things changes every day, from store to store. In one instance, a manager even challenged an employee taking orders at the drive-through window to remember 100 orders in a row from repeat customers.

In these small-but-significant ways, the fast-food chain boosts employee engagement and performance, as well as customer satisfaction, by making novelty a critical aspect of business.

“There is something really special about always feeling challenged, always engaging in activities that are new,” Gino says.

  1. Play to your strengths

While most of us dwell too much on our weaknesses, rebels play to their strengths. Focusing on their talents allows rebels to feel authentic, which Gino says is a proven factor in successfully persisting through challenges.

She recalls studying the real-world power of authenticity in the context of a pitch competition in which entrepreneurs presented their business ideas to potential investors. Gino and her colleagues found that entrepreneurs who expressed authenticity while pitching investors were three times more likely to earn funding for their ventures, “suggesting that authenticity actually helps us perform better even on the most difficult task.”

  1. Help others succeed

Rebels not only play to their strengths, they also help others bring out the best in themselves. Gino advises that they are the kinds of people we should surround ourselves with in our personal and professional lives.

“What if we all started from the assumptions that the people we interact with, the people we work with, the people we lead are people who fundamentally have these talents?” she asks. “And our job is the same job as that of a sculptor; to allow for those talents to come out, to encourage those talents.”

How can rebel-leaders help others play to their strengths? Based on her research, Gino suggests not only encouraging employees to think about their talents and how they can apply them to their work, but also giving their team members the freedom to bring their contributions and unique voices to the table, no matter what their position in the organization.

  1. Foster curiosity

While most adults experience a steady decline in curiosity from childhood, rebels hold on to this elusive characteristic and utilize it to inspire engagement, connection and creativity.

“Curiosity is such an important ingredient, not only to stay engaged in what we do, but also to have a better relationship at work and outside of work, and also to be creative and innovative in our thinking,” Gino says.

She shares the story of Intuit as an example of a company encouraging curiosity at an organizational level. Intuit not only holds innovation awards for employees each year, but also hosts “failure awards” to celebrate team members whose efforts may not have succeeded, but led to important discoveries nevertheless.

“The company is really trying to celebrate these intelligent failures that led to important learnings,” she says. “It celebrates explorations in a way that allows them to keep curiosity alive.”

Living a rebel life

For leaders looking to embrace their inner rebel, Gino suggests first understanding the talents that come the most naturally to you, then thinking about how to approach life and work a little bit differently as a result.

Effective rebel-leaders, she says, also view power a little differently. Instead of thinking of power as a tool to wield over people, view respect and influence as something that must be earned from others.

“One of the things that is true of rebel-leaders is that they seem to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘Am I the type of captain that my crew would choose as its leader today?’ And that is a question that keeps them honest and focused on investing in people.”

Gino says learning to think like a rebel can improve all aspects of life, from business and leadership, to parenting, marriage and other relationships. By embracing vulnerability, novelty, authenticity and curiosity, and helping others to do the same, it’s possible to become more engaged and find more joy in your life and work.

“If you’re like me, after trying the rebel life, you won’t want to go back.”.

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