The Tao of Rebel Management

Earlier this month I talked about the bearable discomfort of being a rebel, although some who commented didn’t find it very bearable. (And we should not minimize reality or sugar it. It can be very painful to be a rebel. Figuring out ways to make it less hard by learning from each other is the purpose of this community.) Since that post I’ve been reflecting on my time as a senior leader at the CIA, when I, as a known rebel, was, rather unexpectedly, asked to actually help steer the enterprise. So many mistakes I made!! Some lessons I learned soon enough to be of help at the time; but sadly too many were only apparent in hindsight. I’ve decided to organize them into three broad categories that I’ll write about over the next few days:

  • The Tao of Rebel Management
  • Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers
  • Helping Rebels Help Themselves

The last category captures the dual challenge confronting rebel managers. On the one hand you are now in a position to actually try to implement some of the ideas you care most deeply about. On the other hand, you also are in a position to help others, most of whom were presumably your colleagues, fellow members of the rebel alliance. You might think it would be easy to do both simultaneously. I did not find that to be the case, but more on that later.

So today it's the Tao of Rebel Management. These are broad principles; you could call many of them useful states of mind, to carry with you on your rebel management tour of duty. Many of these ideas I’ve already catalogued on my RecoveringFed blog under Lessons from a CIA Manager because they are in fact just principles of good leadership. But some are new and almost all have a special rebel wrinkle.

Be Corny! I know this advice is personality dependent and some of you may just not be able to go there. But when you embark on your effort to change THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE, act as if success is just around the corner. Be cheerful! Be emotional! Evince some enthusiasm. (Organizations tend to view enthusiasm as some kind of sin—and of course cynics can’t abide it.) I can’t think of anything less appealing than a dour reformer.  (Not to mention that those who oppose you are just waiting for you to lose your cool and your momentum.)

There’s actually an important reason to start off positive, because soon enough you will need to accept the fact that you will have to

Disappoint your Followers at a Rate they can Tolerate. This is not an original thought. Ron Heifetz came up with this concept some ten years ago. Rebel managers soon enough will start making compromises as they work to master the art of possible change in their organization. Almost all of your supporters will be disappointed by the compromises you make but you can’t afford to lose their good will completely. Zen rebel managers are particularly skilled at navigating this narrow path.

When you join the management team, you will soon become acquainted with the quaint customs and time-honored procedures of the TOP. Many of these stroke your ego and make you feel important. But you must resist!

Establish your own Leadership Tempo. It’s not just the trappings of power that the rebel manager must avoid. He needs to resist being sucked into the daily, weekly, monthly rhythm of meetings beloved by the status quo. These meetings are powerful defense mechanisms of THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE. If you let these meetings exhaust your time and energy, you’re in trouble from the get-go. Don’t accept the routines and customs of the existing management team. Question for example why you really must read every single memo produced by the office and whether the “update meetings” really are necessary.

Understand the Power of Love. Whose love? The love of many in your organization for the way things are, for the status quo. I think this is one of the greatest mistakes rebel managers can make: failing to understand that many, if not most, of the other leaders of their organization want to preserve what they have because they genuinely believe in it. Those who oppose change aren’t stupid or acting only out of self-interest. For many, the changes the rebel managers advocate strike at the very essence of something they believe in deeply. Once you understand this, your approach changes. You are less likely to underestimate those who don’t support you and much more willing to engage in real conservations with them to identify areas for synergy.

These conversations will prepare you to

Seek Progress, not Perfection. Rebel managers often have only a relatively short time to effect change. It is exhausting and difficult to fend off all the tactics that will be deployed against you. So be sure to take all the gains that are offered, however trivial they may seem.

Change your Change Agenda. Don’t stand pat with the same reform ideas you’ve had for ten years. As a rebel manager, you are being exposed to new information about how the system really works. You can be sure that the ideas you came in determined to implement need adjustment. Some rebel managers will resist doing so lest they appear weak or inconsistent. Don’t conflate your ego with your ideas.

Ignore your Lizard Brain. As you work on your reform program, you will encounter situations that drive you crazy, that make you want to give up. And you’ll feel these acid emotions start massing in your brain. These are the emotions that, left unchecked, will lead you to yell at someone, wield sarcasm, and have too many drinks when you get home. Learn to recognize the acid buildup early on. What I’ve actually found useful, as soon as I sense these primitive emotions, is simply to start saying, preferably out loud, the phrase “lizard brain.” It works almost like an exorcism. As soon as I recognize the emotions for what they are, they lose their power.

Next time I post, I’ll share some more practical tips about the tactics I found effective as a rebel manager. You’ll learn why attacking bureaucracy is like being an NFL running back and why consensus-seeking is just a way to avoid making decisions.