Rebel Talent


In her speech and interaction with Sarah Green Carmichael, Francesca Gino describes the characteristics of rebel talent and how they can be positive and constructive for the organization.

This period of crisis is the time to embrace our inner rebel. The definition of rebel talent can be best explained by a story that comes from Osteria Francescana, a three Michelin star restaurant in Modena, Italy. This is a story of a typical family of two parents and their two sons that came to visit the restaurant. They are welcomed by Giuseppe Palmieri, who then takes their order as well. The father gave the order, but Palmieri noticed in the two boys this face of great desperation as if they were not really as eager as their father. Palmiere revealed his rebel talent when he asked one of the sons what they wanted to eat, and got “Pizza” as the immediate answer, and proceeded to order one from the best pizzeria in Modena, as the restaurant did not have it on their menu. In Osteria Francescana, there is a lot of attention to detail, a lot of sophistication in the way the dishes are prepared, in the way the tables are prepared, and everything is quite proper to create a remarkable experience for everyone eating at the restaurant, but also lots of rules to be followed. Despite that, Palmiere decided to go ahead and order the pizza.

Giuseppe Palmieri is an example of a rebel talent because he was able to come in with an open mind and set aside the rules to think about the bigger mission of the restaurant, which was about creating a memorable experience. He was able to think on his feet about a rather creative solution to the situation that he was facing. Usually, when we think about rebels in our life, in our business, we tend not to think of people like Palmieri. We think of the annoying colleague, who always get in our way as we are trying to do things, or we think of the people that we call contrarians or show-offs, but there are also people who are breaking rules that hold them and others back, in a way that is really positive and constructive for the organizations. These are the rebels that are able to turn something stressful, something that usually is paralyzing into a force of good, and a lot can be learned from these kinds of rebels.

The rebels who bring about positive change have five different talents, namely novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity.

The rebels who bring about positive change have five different talents, namely novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity. They are able to constantly adapt and not suffer from crisis because they fight their human nature, and have a talent for novelty. Rather than going for what is familiar and comfortable, they go for the uncomfortable. They stretch themselves and do things that are new in a way that is not natural to human nature. They are also curious. The rebels are the people who keep asking questions, have the same type of curiosity and awe that we all had when we were little children.

Rebels also have a broad perspective. Human nature pushes us into a troublesome direction, where we look at problems only from one angle. The rebels are the people who have a broad view and so they always consider all sorts of alternatives when they face a situation that they might have not encountered before. They value the opinions of others, even when they are very challenging, and are different from their point of view. Relatedly, they have a talent for diversity. We tend to accept a lot of the social roles or stereotypical judgments that society puts on us, but the rebels fight that tendency and instead appreciate differences and leverage them in a powerful way. Finally, rather than conforming to the opinions and preferences of others, rebels embrace their authenticity. They are people who courageously bring that authenticity forward.

The famous sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti once said, “Sculpting is a process whereby the artist releases an ideal figure from the block of stone in which it slumbers”. This quote raises an important question; what if we were all to start with the assumption that everyone around us in our own organization, in our personal sphere of life has great talents? Our job as leaders, as colleagues, but also as parents or as friends is to create that sculpting, to create opportunities for the rebels to bring these talents forward and do so more often. They are everywhere, working in various positions, and they are making different choices about whether or not to fight their human nature.

We tend to accept a lot of the social roles or stereotypical judgments that society puts on us, but the rebels fight that tendency and instead appreciate differences and leverage them in a powerful way.

One of the rebel organizations is pirate ships in the 16th century. They were rebellious in a way that people might not actually think. They were an organization embracing this idea of leveraging differences. At that time, they were the most diverse organization on the planet, as they were getting people on their ships, a part of the crew, not because of race or gender but because of their skills and their commitment to what the crew was all about, their mission. They were also interestingly organized. The crew on the ship was in charge of choosing the captain and the crew could also easily remove the captain if the captain was not behaving in ways that were good for the crew. This led the captains to ask themselves if their crew would choose them or reject them as their captain. This is a relevant question for leaders even today. It is a question that creates a lot of humility and allows a leader to think more carefully about whether they are staying true to the idea of sculpting, to creating conditions where others around them are thriving and are embracing these talents.

It is important because when we embrace these talents, we are in fact more adaptive, we experience a stressful situation as less stressful, we are more innovative, more creative, we make better decisions, and develop more meaningful relationships. Embracing this idea does not have to be completely a breakthrough, or a complete rethinking of your life. It is in the small things that we all get the chance to think differently about this talent and using them more often. Leaders should look at every opportunity, even accidents to find a source of inspiration. They should approach the world with curiosity and turn situations that might look like mistakes into opportunities. This is the type of mindset we need, especially in these trying times. 

We have small opportunities, actions that we take, questions that we ask ourselves as a simple way of changing our mindset that 

Sarah Green Carmichael in Conversation with Francesca Gino_

Sarah Green Carmichael: Are rebel talent different from high potentials, and how are they different?

Francesca Gino: They can be considered different unless we think that all of us are high potential. These five talents are talents that we all have, and it is just a matter of being courageous enough to rely on them on a more regular basis. If people want to know how much of these talents they have naturally, they can take a test called the Rebel Test on rebeltalents.org. The results tell you where to keep your attention going forward as a way of allowing yourself to embrace other talents more often that might not be as natural for you.

Sarah Green Carmichael: To what extent can the rebel behaviour be learned?

Francesca Gino: This behaviour can be learned. Being an effective rebel is very much a journey, and it takes courage.  We need to break away from the usual way of thinking and working or what comes to us because we are humans. With that courage, we might be thinking about people who are exceptionally creative or exceptionally courageous, but sometimes rebels have those qualities and they might just not be clear to us. Captain Sully Sullenberger is one of the rebels. He is the captain who ditched a plane with 155 passengers in the Hudson River back on a cold evening in 2009. At the time of crisis, he had 208 seconds to make a decision. Most of us would go into tunnel vision and eliminate options in that situation but he kept considering options, broadening his perspective, despite the fact that he had very little time and a lot of pressure. In his interview, he said that every time he walked into the cockpit, he would ask himself a simple question, “What do I stand to learn today?”, even though he has a ton of experience under his belt.

We have small opportunities, actions that we take, questions that we ask ourselves as a simple way of changing our mindset that allow us to broaden our perspective, but more generally, to embrace our inner rebel. There is no better time than a crisis to do just that. This ability to keep perspective is incredibly helpful on a day to day basis, as a way to end the day with a smile despite all the information coming out from so many people in organizations who are hurting. 

Sarah Green Carmichael: Are there any specific mantras or exercises or techniques that you have used to get yourself in that mindset?

Francesca Gino: There are. The mantra that stayed with me is, break-transform-create; it is breaking away from usual ways of working or routines that we might have fallen prey to without too much thinking, and then thinking about finding the opportunity to transform them and create our success or our new way of working. Again, this crisis that we are living in is a great moment to reflect. We need to break away from the usual routines, and once we go back to work or the new normal, maybe we would want to abandon the things that we were doing for something different.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Does the idea of the crew choosing the leader limit the leader’s ability to be brave or authentic or do things that are unpopular but necessary? 

Francesca Gino: It is potentially the opposite. One of the things that we get wrong as leaders, and in general as people, is that doing risky things, that potentially show our vulnerability to others are things, behaviour, actions that are going to backfire, that are going to get some negative reaction. Contrary to this belief, when we make ourselves vulnerable, people connect with us much more easily, because, in essence, it is humanizing to see imperfection in other people. It is easier to connect with a leader who is not perfect. A lot of rebels and rebel leaders have a willingness to make themselves vulnerable.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Can you talk more about psychological safety and its importance in a rebel organization?

Francesca Gino: Often, we can look at constructive rebelliousness from two standpoints. One is the standpoint of the leader, and the other is that of the lonely person, the newbies who have recently joined the organization and want to embrace this idea but are unclear on whether the leadership supports it or not. Often, people in the second category feel unsure, and decide to wait for the leadership to change their mind. It feels risky to them to take a step in that direction. But change does happen if we are the first one willing to take actions, to move ourselves and others working with us in a different direction. It could be very small actions or suggesting an idea to people to think differently, but in a way that does not shut down what is there, that shows appreciation for the usual way of working but also shows a different direction.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Can you talk a little bit about how a good leader should react to mistakes?

Francesca Gino: It is always about keeping this curiosity insight and being able to look at a situation and say, “But what if?” or, “How can this mistake be turned into an opportunity?” Again, the crisis we are living in is a particularly difficult one, and it can feel paralyzing, but if we start with the “what if”, we are going to come up with ideas that we may retain for the future. Leaders who choose to look for opportunities in the challenges they are facing right now are better. When we can have the mindset of looking for opportunity and keeping our curiosity alive in a way, it is really contagious and also good for the way we experience work and life generally.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Are there things that leaders have to unlearn or habits that all of us should unlearn to be better at doing this kind of thing?

Francesca Gino: Pausing is helpful. One of the things that I’ve realized in learning so much about these effective rebels is to be, in essence, more honest and look into my behaviour. Taking parenting as an example, we see that children are full of curiosity and many curious actions end up in chaos. Instead of trying to quiet down the children, parents can just join in the fun. In those moments, you will realize that the entertainment value is bigger than the chaos created. Children do a really good job of reminding us of the fun that comes with curiosity and a broad perspective, but also the importance of thinking about the world and the possibilities a little bit differently.

Sarah Green Carmichael: For those who might be feeling stuck in organizations where this kind of creativity and childlike play and curiosity is not welcome, do you have advice on dealing with organizational entropy or resistance to your ideas?

Francesca Gino: Start with small ideas, or maybe run a pilot. Back in 2013, Deloitte got rid of their old performance management system and went on to a journey of transformation, of thinking differently about development and performance management. It was a massive task of trying to change the behaviour of hundreds and thousands of people, and change does not happen easily for any of us. As soon as they had a little bit of traction, they decided to run a pilot. They collected some data, explored an idea, and built a case just by starting small. It is a really good idea, especially for people who are facing a lot of resistance. Change doesn’t happen easily and we all get used to the usual way of working, so being patient and persistent is quite important.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Is there any possible downside to acting as a rebel or having too many rebels in one team?

Francesca Gino: Sometimes this question is asked in the following way, “What is that magic percentage of rebels I need in my business or my team?”. The answer is 100%. It is because there is nothing scary about these five rebel talents ¾novelty, curiosity, authenticity, perspective, and diversity¾ as long as we keep all of them in check. Perspectives and leveraging differences with diversity are really important because we are then able to move things forward in a way that is positive rather than turning our rebelliousness into arrogance. Part of the reason why the answer is 100% is that you get to great outcomes, more innovation, better decision making, and more meaningful relationships at work with constructive rebelliousness. Rather than feeling that work is a source of frustration, we find it to be a source of joy. Some of the global data about engagement at work show that over 70% of people across the organization find work wearisome, so there are lots of opportunities to do things better, to embrace rebelliousness in a way that can be positive. However, rebelliousness could go too far and become arrogance if we don’t keep an eye on perspective and diversity.

Sarah Green Carmichael: There is a tendency to hunker down, stay with what you know, and avoid asking difficult questions during this time. Are there things leaders can do to help people get in touch with curiosity and risk-taking side, and encourage disruptive thoughts that might have a good outcome?

Francesca Gino: It is helpful for leaders, especially in a moment like this one, to have more regular check-ins with people they work with. It is also important to realize what their situation is like and what types of pressures people are feeling because everybody has a different experience. Some people feel that they have five jobs these days rather than one because they have their parents to take care of, or their children or their spouse, so it is important to try to understand their situation and give them space to bring that forward. 

It is also a wonderful opportunity for reflection and asking questions about the way we work. There might be new ways of working that are just popping up because of the constraints that we are under, which are worth discussing or thinking through in a way that we might end up holding on even when we go back to work after this crisis. To sum up, open up those conversations and do that more often than you used to, but also understand that people have different realities and different constraints.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Would you like to share any final thoughts?

Francesca Gino: One of the things that I think a lot about is the fact that when I started this project over a decade ago, I was focused on how to embrace constructive rebelliousness at work and how doing so will lead to a lot of good things like better engagement, more job satisfaction, better performance and more willingness to stay committed to your job. Along the way, I realized that these ideas are also great for life more generally. We can apply all of them, from curiosity to opportunity to the idea of discovering ourselves, to our professional lives as well as our personal life.

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