It’s not rebels that make trouble, but trouble that makes rebels. —RUTH MESSINGER
A Talent for Novelty
Novelty compels both humans and animals to engage with the unfamiliar. Indeed, our strong desire for novelty has evolutionary roots, improving our survival odds by keeping us alert to both friends and threats in our environment. As new parents quickly learn, when given a choice, babies consistently look at, listen to, and play with unfamiliar things.
The preference for novelty is an efficient way for immature cognitive systems to process information, helping babies cope with changes to their environment before unleashing their inner explorer.
Surprisingly, novelty is even more important than stability. In a study with a group of three hundred new employees, the more frequently they experienced novelty in their work in the weeks that followed (because they learned new skills, met new colleagues, or felt challenged in their tasks), the more they felt satisfied with and energized by their jobs, and the longer they were interested in staying with the organization. Stability, by contrast, did not seem to bring these benefits. When employees reported that their job felt “more or less the same every day,” their satisfaction suffered, and they were more eager to move on.
Psychologists call this kind of experience “self-expansion.” When we engage in novel activities and acquire new skills, our sense of who we are expands, as does the number of traits we use to describe who we are. This, in turn, heightens our confidence that we can accomplish our goals, even when we’re outside of our comfort zone, and it also increases our commitment to reaching our destination, no matter how tough the road.
A Talent for Curiosity
When we open ourselves to curiosity, we are more apt to reframe situations in a positive way. Curiosity makes us much more likely to view a tough problem at work as an interesting challenge to take on. A stressful meeting with our boss becomes an opportunity to learn. A nerve-racking first date becomes an exciting night out with a new person. A colander becomes a hat. In general, curiosity motivates us to view stressful situations as challenges rather than threats, to talk about difficulties more openly and to try new approaches to solving problems.
In fact, curiosity is associated with a less defensive reaction to stress and, as a result, less aggression when we respond to a provocation. In a diary study conducted each day over four weeks, people who had higher tolerance for uncertainty indicated that they had conflicts with friends less often, fewer passive-aggressive reactions, and were more willing to excuse transgressions. Curiosity, in short, translates into greater engagement with others and with the world, thanks to the exploratory behavior and learning that it inspires.
We all differ in how curious we are by nature. But no matter our natural level of curiosity, in organizations, curiosity can be fostered. Leaders can encourage it throughout their company by first being more inquisitive and curious themselves. Curiosity needs champions, and that needs to start at the top. Whether in brainstorming sessions or in regular firm meetings, leaders can set a good example by asking “Why?” and “What if?”—and by encouraging others to do the same.
A Talent for Perspective
We generally think of experience as a good thing. With experience comes knowledge, skill, and expertise, after all. Sully, for example, wouldn’t have been able to land his plane in the Hudson River without all those years of experience. When we face problems that we believe we’ve encountered in the past and that we have the proper knowledge to solve, we feel a sense of comfort and confidence. This feeling, psychology research tells us, often leads us to approach situations mindlessly rather than thoughtfully. Fighting this feeling was another way that Sully was exceptional.
Sully viewed expertise not as something to achieve, but as a process that must be kept alive. “I have been making small, regular deposits in this bank throughout my life of education, training, and experience,” he told me. “When we were suddenly confronted with a tough situation that day, the balance in that account was sufficient that I could make a sudden withdrawal.” He had never practiced a water landing before, as the simulators did not even allow it. But he had gained much experience from all sorts of different situations, which reminded him that there is always something more to learn and that every choice can be approached from more than just one perspective.
The danger of the feeling of knowing is that it leads us to rationalize our prior views and decisions—and the urge gets stronger with more experience. “Like a totalitarian government,” writes psychologist Joachim Krueger of Brown University, “the ego has been said to shape perception in such a way that it protects a sense of its own good will, its central place in the social world and its control over relevant outcomes.” Experience should open our minds to the fact that the same decision or task can be approached differently.
A Talent for Diversity
Stereotypes can help us make sense of the world. But because they are mere generalizations, they can also stir up a great deal of trouble. When we buy into stereotypes, we can sometimes end up perpetrators of cruelty and discrimination, often without even being aware of it. Rebels, by contrast, realize that stereotypes are blinding and that fighting the tendency to stereotype produces a clearer picture of reality—and a competitive advantage. Rebels do not thoughtlessly accept the social roles and attitudes that society promotes. They challenge such roles and attitudes, never missing an opportunity to prove them wrong.
When we’re not careful, stereotypes act like firewalls, blocking new information from penetrating our thoughts and preventing us from changing our minds unless something truly dramatic happens. In the 1999 film Beautiful People, which is set in London during the Bosnian War, there is a scene in which a young doctor brings home a Balkan War refugee who has recently arrived in the city—someone whom she, and the viewer, knows nothing about. At the dinner table, the doctor’s conservative upper-class family comes across as a group of patronizing snobs, while the refugee appears to be unsophisticated and uneducated. And then the refugee sits down at the family’s piano and starts to play Souvenirs d’Andalousie for Piano, a romantic piece by American composer Louis Gottschalk. He plays masterfully, and in the process catapults both the family and the viewer out of stereotypical assumptions so that we can view him, and maybe others like him, through a new lens.
A Talent for Authenticity
We all hesitate before making ourselves vulnerable, fearful of being judged by others, but these worries are usually misplaced. Opening up wins us trust, perhaps even more so when it involves showing weaknesses—or a personal problem.
Revealing our deepest emotions takes courage, which inspires emulation and admiration in the people around us, and allows them to connect with us more quickly and more profoundly. Rebels understand all of this. They are willing to stand “naked” in front of others. Sharing personal information is key to developing and maintaining strong relationships. When we do, our peers trust and like us more, and also feel closer to us. In addition, self-disclosure makes us feel (and appear) more real.
In early 2016, after posting a revised CV on his professional website, Princeton University professor Johannes Haushofer became a kind of folk hero of failure. In this “CV of failures,” he listed the many positions and awards for which he had applied and been rejected. When asked about the revision, Haushofer gave a simple explanation to the Washington Post: “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”
The 8 Principles of Rebel Leadership
Rebel leadership is not just for people who think of themselves as leaders. And you don’t need a staff of people working under you to be a rebel leader. Rebel leadership means that you prefer working in a rebel organization and that you support your organization in that mission. Rebel leadership means fighting our natural human urges for the comfortable and the familiar.
- Seek Out the New
Even situations that we’ve experienced many times in the past or routes that look familiar can come across as novel if we approach them by focusing on what seems new.
- Encourage Constructive Dissent
the practice of assigning someone to play devil’s advocate during meetings to challenge the consensus and raise different perspectives produces better decisions.
- Open Conversations, Don’t Close Them
At Pixar, when writers and directors are working on a story, there is a premium on developing creative solutions. Group leaders encourage a technique they call “plussing.” 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 might build on a starting point by saying, “I like Woody’s eyes, and what if we . . .” Someone else might then jump in and add her own plus.
- Reveal Yourself—and Reflect
Rebels understand the power of showing themselves—and knowing themselves. They don’t hide who they are or pretend to be someone they are not. They encourage others to find and express their strengths.
- Learn Everything—Then Forget Everything
Rebels know the limits of their knowledge, and that mastering the basics is a lifelong project. But a rebel is not a slave to the rules either. Sometimes you return to the fundamentals only to discover a strategy that is very different—and better.
- Find Freedom in Constraints
Rebels work through constraints to the freedom on the other side. Human nature introduces some of the most formidable challenges: bias; a preference for the status quo; blinding self-regard. Rebels are aware of these constraints and fight against them.
- Lead from the Trenches
Rebels know where the action is, and that’s where they want to be—not up in a tower or secluded in a corner office. The rebel knows that the best way to lead is from the trenches. Rebel leaders are comrades, friends, and fellow enthusiasts. Napoleon would not have spent all his time in the executive suite.
- Foster Happy Accidents
Friends are the people you bump into.
When Steve Jobs needed a new home for Pixar he bought a dilapidated Del Monte canning factory. The initial plan was to create separate spaces for each department but instead he decided to configure the old factory as one large space, centered on an atrium. He put employee mailboxes in the atrium, as well as the café, gift shop, and screening rooms.
Jobs believed that separating the groups, each of which had its own unique culture and approach to problem solving, would discourage idea sharing.