Corporate Rebels: Change Requires Disturbance

Aris­to­tle once said, “A good man is not always a good cit­i­zen.” Accord­ing­ly, a good employ­ee is not always an obe­di­ent employ­ee. Orga­ni­za­tion­al rebels cause dis­tur­bance and thus keep their orga­ni­za­tions alive. This post pro­vides an overview of cul­ti­vat­ed rebel­lious­ness, from its ori­gin in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence to the prin­ci­ples of orga­ni­za­tion­al rebel­lion and the ques­tion of how to lead, chal­lenge and coach such rebels.

Civil Disobedience as Foundation

But if the law is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injus­tice to anoth­er, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-fric­tion to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.
Hen­ry David Thoreau

Civ­il dis­obe­di­ence is a form of resis­tance with­in an exist­ing order. It does not reject the exist­ing struc­tures and does not aim to dis­solve the sys­tem. Those who prac­tice civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, there­fore, do not place them­selves out­side the order, but con­scious­ly accept a pun­ish­ment for their pub­licly cel­e­brat­ed dis­obe­di­ence. Through this will­ing­ness to risk pun­ish­ment, how­ev­er, his resis­tance becomes extreme­ly authen­tic and a mat­ter of pro­found moral conviction.

The con­cept became known at the lat­est through Hen­ry David Thore­au’s essay “On the Duty of Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence” in which he explained why he did not pay any more tax­es in protest against the war against Mex­i­co and slav­ery. In doing so, he delib­er­ate­ly and pub­licly vio­lat­ed the law in order to point out an injus­tice (in rela­tion to a high­er law) and to bring about a change through this non-vio­lent pub­lic act of protest.

The hon­est cit­i­zen is there­fore not char­ac­terised by absolute obe­di­ence, but by a qual­i­fied obe­di­ence to the law (Jür­gen Haber­maß). And this nec­es­sar­i­ly includes resis­tance in the form of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. This also leads to the moral man­date for orga­ni­za­tion­al rebels. They do not work against the orga­ni­za­tion, but always aim to improve the orga­ni­za­tion. They iden­ti­fy them­selves with the orga­ni­za­tion and the actu­al pur­pose of the orga­ni­za­tion, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly with all its incon­sis­tent rules or an orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture that is per­ceived as a detri­men­tal fac­tor. Their dis­sent­ing think­ing and dif­fer­ent ways of work­ing are there­fore the deci­sive dis­tur­bance to pro­tect an orga­ni­za­tion from com­pla­cen­cy and inertia.

10 Principles for Corporate Rebels

While it’s true that every com­pa­ny needs an entre­pre­neur to get it under way, healthy growth requires a smat­ter­ing of intrapre­neurs who dri­ve new projects and explore new and unex­pect­ed direc­tions for busi­ness development.
Richard Bran­son

In 1986, Gif­ford Pin­chot III sug­gest­ed 10 com­mand­ments for intrapre­neurs in his book “Intrapre­neur­ing: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Cor­po­ra­tion to Become an Entre­pre­neur” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link), which he lat­er expand­ed and clar­i­fied by six more. Based on these com­mand­ments and enriched with a pinch of Work­ing Out Loud and effec­tu­a­tion, I con­sid­er the fol­low­ing prin­ci­ples to be guid­ing for the work of orga­ni­za­tion­al rebels:

  1. Be brave — be rad­i­cal. Come to work every day will­ing to be fired.
  2. Have a great vision and clear prin­ci­ples that guide you.
  3. Focus on the next action you can take here and now, inde­pen­dent­ly of your job descrip­tion, to get clos­er to your vision.
  4. Find some allies, build a net­work and become a movement.
  5. Bypass­es rules and reg­u­la­tions to achieve your pur­pose, but nev­er as an end in itself.
  6. Work under­ground for as long as pos­si­ble — too much vis­i­bil­i­ty too ear­ly awak­ens the orga­ni­za­tion’s immune system.
  7. Be grate­ful for support.
  8. Learn from resis­tance and defeat.
  9. Be per­sis­tent in your efforts and mod­est in the expec­ta­tion of suc­cess. (Götz W. Werner)
  10. Always act for the ben­e­fit of the orga­ni­za­tion and its customers.

How to Lead, Challenge and Coach Corporate Rebels

The key to the cul­ture change was indi­vid­ual empow­er­ment. We some­times under­es­ti­mate what we each can do to make things hap­pen, and over­es­ti­mate what oth­ers need to do for us. I became irri­tat­ed once dur­ing an employ­ee Q&A when some­one asked me, “Why can’t I print a doc­u­ment from my mobile phone?” I polite­ly told him, “Make it hap­pen. You have full authority.“
Satya Nadel­la, Hit Refresh

Lead­ers who want to sup­port rebels require a cul­ture that is based on diver­si­ty and dis­sent. A secure space is need­ed in which it is desired and appre­ci­at­ed to ques­tion the sta­tus quo. And this space extends well beyond the actu­al area of respon­si­bil­i­ty of the respec­tive man­ag­er. In the jun­gle of pol­i­tics in the orga­ni­za­tion there are enough pit­falls that trig­ger an imme­di­ate and more or less severe immune response of the sys­tem. It is the lead­er’s job to rec­og­nize and avoid these pit­falls and thus pro­tect his rebels. And that makes them rebels themselves.

Rebels need free­dom to ques­tion the sta­tus quo and try some­thing new. It is going to be real­ly good if not only a few select­ed rebels have this free­dom, but as many as pos­si­ble, so that the rebel­lious ideas can res­onate in a pos­i­tive way. It is there­fore an essen­tial task of lead­er­ship to pro­vide this free­dom by con­sis­tent­ly focus­ing on the essen­tials and a cul­ture of sus­tain­abil­i­ty in which being occu­pied is not con­fused with productivity.

The longer you think about these lead­er­ship tasks, the more you come to the con­clu­sion that all this has actu­al­ly lit­tle to do with rebels. In oth­er words, every employ­ee should be led like a rebel. Every­one should have the free­dom to try out and learn with­out get­ting lost in the mill of cor­po­rate pol­i­tics. Every­one should have the free­dom to think out­side the box and ques­tion the sta­tus quo. And every­one should be empow­ered and encour­aged to make use of it. This is pre­cise­ly why these prin­ci­ples are reflect­ed in the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship, which you can sign right here.

Manifesto for human leadership

Share This Post

Leave a Reply