The Rebel Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali's conscientious objection to the War in Vietnam is the first social/political issue I can remember capturing my attention. When Ali refused induction into the military in 1967 I was 12 years old. My family had just returned the previous year from Germany where my dad the Army sergeant had been assigned. We had had no television to speak of in the small Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen, so the ferment of the civil rights movement, for example, didn't penetrate my consciousness. (I remember when we landed in the United States from Germany being transfixed by an American television show--a black and white episode of Lost in Space featuring Billy Mumy--broadcast somewhere in the airport.) Everything about the Muhammad Ali case confused me. 384px-Muhammad_Ali_NYWTSOf course most people then were still calling him Cassius Clay, including my parents. My father had no sympathy for Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam and yet he had admired the brash irreverence of Cassius Clay the boxer. I remember wondering why such an attractive person would risk all that success by making an unpopular argument. I couldn't imagine anything ever being so important. And yet I also remember disagreeing with Ali's critics who questioned his patriotism and manhood. The one thing he didn't seem to lack was courage.

Fifty years later, Carmen the adult-approaching-senior-citizen has achieved more clarity about the example of Muhammad Ali. In a wonderful retrospective I recommend to all Rebels at Work, Ali is quoted as saying during the height of the controversy:

I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.

Actually, he had just about everything to lose materially. Because of his decision, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title--the most prestigious athletic honor of that era--and was unable to fight during what should have been his most productive years. He lost a lot. But, as the article makes clear, Ali's principled stand buttressed others to do what they thought was right, including female tennis star Billie Jean King and Nelson Mandela, who, it should be remembered, was a heavyweight boxer himself in 1950s South Africa.

I think Muhammad Ali intuited the impact that a single individual can have when he stands for something beyond just himself. He took on the most extreme of positions at the most inopportune of times and was ready to suffer the consequences if proven wrong. He understood what a 12-year old couldn't and what many adults still don't:

Life's ultimate success is being true to yourself.



The Rebel Penalty Box

The other day I was having lunch with a friend, a rebel at work and she was telling me that she was finally out of the Rebel Penalty Box at the office. Immediately I knew what she meant. "How did you get in the Rebel Penalty Box?"Alexander_Sazonov_2011-09-26_Amur—Heftekhimik_KHL-game

"Well, actually the year it happened I thought I was doing the best work in my career. I thought I was really getting things done that would make a difference, implementing change. But I guess my boss didn't see it that way. And I received a lesser ranking in my performance review that year."

"Whoa!! What did you do then?" I asked.

"I decided to just go low profile. Just do exactly what was expected of me. And wouldn't you know it, that worked I guess. This year, my performance rating was raised to its previous level. So I guess that means I'm out of the penalty box."

That story was so familiar to me and I bet to most of the rebels reading this post. At some point in your work life you will get a minor penalty or a 5 minute major, and you will need to find a way to get through it without losing your sanity or your rebel core--they're kind of one and the same thing, right? In my friend's case, it came as a complete surprise--she thought she was excelling at doing the right thing and was jazzed up about her performance. Only to find that, in her case, a change in upper management meant a new definition of success. My time in the penalty box was longer, I think. Most of a decade. A five-minute major. And I kind of knew it was coming. I wasn't doing the best work of my career. I had let myself become cynical and negative and eventually people just became quite tired of me. I deserved that time in the rebel penalty box.

So, if you find yourself in the penalty box, how should rebels think about it? What can help them get through the period?

Try not to dwell on the fact that it's unfair. Of course it's unfair... in a way. But you're probably in the penalty box because you broke a rule of the organization--either explicit or implicit. In my friend's case she did not factor in the likely behavior of a new boss. They almost always reconsider the priorities of the previous regime--it might as well be a rule. We're not saying don't ever break the rules, although we do think changing rules is a much better strategy for the long term. But just keep in mind that if you're out doing something new, the chances rise that you'll be called for a penalty. It's the risk you run.

Take your helmet off and cool down. In ice hockey, players are advised to remove their helmets so they can release more heat and cool off from the exertion of the game. Not a bad idea for us rebels. The relative peace and quiet of the penalty box can be a great opportunity to think things through, replay the moves you made, and think about how your future strategy. In my friend's case, she minded her p's and q's to regain her footing with the new boss. We know some rebels might find that distasteful, but remember that in ice hockey, fighting when you're in the penalty box will probably get you ejected from the game.

Be thankful you weren't ejected. Unless of course that's your goal. Maybe you're so tired of trying to make people listen to your ideas that you've decided to leave. Getting thrown out is your grand fireworks finale. But just be careful how that plays out. Your firing might be the example that sets back change efforts in the organization for years to come.

Look for an opportunity to score when you leave the box. There's no more exciting play in ice hockey then when an aware teammate passes the puck to the player leaving the penalty box. It usually creates a scoring opportunity. Perhaps you can look for a new position where there's more tolerance for new ideas. Or maybe new leadership arrives that's more amenable to change. Having been in the penalty box, the rebel is more likely to observe larger patterns at work that he can begin to take advantage of.

This blog, of course, was also inspired by the Olympics and the exciting men's hockey game between Russia and the USA this weekend.


Lessons for Rebels from David Petraeus

The Petraeus affair is a tragic story, of which all I know is what I read in the "papers". It does, however, provide a "good" bad example of what I observe way too much of in organizations: the turning of a "leader" into a "hero"; the love of a strong hand at the controls; and the conflation of an idea with the person carrying it. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. Repeat after me. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. I remember once when I was attending a year-long leadership seminar about a decade ago--right after 911. We would occasionally take trips together and the instructors would show films about leadership during the bus rides. EVERY SINGLE MOVIE was about a leader in war. The favorite of course was the Henry V film by Kenneth Branagh. Honestly, I have nothing against Shakespeare; in fact most of his dramas actually speak to the foibles of the Leader as Hero myth. But the emphasis in this and other courses I took was always about the importance of YOU the LEADER as a visionary individual, as the person who could make everything happen, and as the essential individual in extraordinary situations. How about leadership in normal times, I asked? Could you show a movie about something a bit more relevant to our likely experiences?

Petraeus, it seems to me, fit the Leader as Hero paradigm. And if you read his biography, with his apparent emphasis on always being the best, you get the impression that the Hero mantle was one he himself took off the coat hanger. The problem with the Heroic Leader, of course, is that there ain't no such thing. Not for long anyway. And the organization becomes overdependent on the individual as the wise decisionmaker, which as we all know carries considerable risks. The person anointed as the Hero is also at considerable risk of believing what people say about him. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said earlier this month: "There is something about having great power...that skews people's judgment." (Full quote appeared in this great piece in the Washington Post.)

The lessons for rebels here is that Heroism is not a Rebel Strategy either. There are perhaps some rebels that are still storming the ramparts in hopes of overwhelming those who don't "get it!" How's that working for you? In my experience most organizations become wiser slowly; people start having "aha" moments here and there; the rebel is often  just the person who gets to the "aha" moment more quickly. And if the organization wants to anoint you as a hero, RESIST!

Closely related to the Heroic Leadership model is the desire for a Strong Hand at the Controls. Clearly there is something deep in human evolution that leads us to want someone who will just tell us what to do. There is a reason why so many small children want to be Darth Vader on Halloween.

History (by which I mean many individuals doing difficult and time-consuming analysis and research) will eventually tell us how much the "surge success" in Iraq can be traced back to decisions made by General Petraeus and how much were the consequences of complex interactions and chaotic lucky bounces. But I am certain that two analytic lines will emerge: 1. the decisions of any one individual were always buffeted by the dynamics of the situation, and 2. the strong decisionmaker was unable to anticipate the many downstream and often adverse consequences of his decisions. Which is why that nice feeling we get knowing there is a strong hand at the controls inevitably becomes, at some point, an illusion.

This is not so much a lesson for rebels as for organizations who tend to breed them. Without Darth Vader (and the Emperor), there would have been no need for a Rebel Alliance. If you find yourself confronting mini rebellions all over the workplace, then you too are suffering from the Strong Hand at the Controls disease. Stop pulling so hard at the levers. Step away from the controls.

The final lesson illustrated by the Petraeus affair is the constant danger rebels run of conflating themselves with the ideas they are advancing. Petraeus became synonymous with the US military's new insurgency doctrine. In this case, the concepts he advanced will likely survive his scandal. But I think we're all familiar with ideas that become so identified with the individuals who espouse them that any doubts about the individual end up besmirching their ideas as well.

I think ideas have their own trajectory independent of the individuals who come to believe them. Rebels are the carriers of new ideas; rarely are they the owners. Just making the mental shift from being an idea owner to an idea carrier could be helpful to rebels in large organizations. If you are carrying an idea then your Number 1 goal should be to get someone else to share the burden with you. Infect others as soon as you can. Let your idea mutate as it makes contact with other ideas. Make the idea independent of you as soon as you can!

While You See a Chance, Take It!

I attended an informal meetup of Rebels at Work earlier this month. About 15 individuals all working in the same outfit gathered to share ideas, particularly about strengthening the rebel and innovation spirit in their organization. It was a great meeting judging by how well over schedule it went and the quality of the ideas we harvested. Here are a few of them; I bet many of you will find one or two useful.

  • The importance of the First Follower to any Rebel at Work. I’m tempted to say that, perhaps after mastering the bureaucratic landscape, attracting your first follower(s) is the top priority for rebels at work. In fact it’s probably ideal if your First Follower is in fact a Bureaucratic Black Belt. (Ideal but probably unlikely. But we can dream!) If you want a good example of the importance of the first follower, watch this great video.
  • Pay attention to what happens before and after you get your great idea. Identify the people who will try to stop you. (One person at the meeting had attended the Creative Studies Program at Buffalo State University--according to him the only such program in the country. At this program they stressed that too many innovators spend too much time and effort on the ideation process and nowhere near enough on the sticky aspects of getting it done. Here’s the link to the Buffalo State program. It looks absolutely awesome.)
  • Strike a balance between the need to deal with reality and the desire to create a new reality. No great insight yet on exactly how to achieve that balance but everyone in the room had felt that tension. I guess what I would say is that you must resist the temptation to only do the former. Tactically there will be moments, perhaps even long periods, when you will need to deal with reality but you must always discipline yourself to return to your creative impulse.
  • Encourage the protectors of the status quo to take a chance. The meeting ended with what I thought was a quite useful conversation about the need to reframe conversations around the idea of taking a chance rather than around avoiding risk. All situations, including the status quo, involve risk. The advantage the status quo seems to have is that it has a known risk rate or error rate. Leaders clearly prefer the error rate they know over the error rate they don’t know. One attendee at the meeting reported having luck by reframing the question around the idea of taking a chance. It was important to acknowledge that he was asking the leader to take a chance. That rang true to me. Sometimes rebels can oversell their change idea. Perhaps we need to be more honest about what we are asking of the powers that be.

Which reminds me of this old Stevie Winwoodsong:

While You See a Chance

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Rebels at Work.



The war on drugs and other disasters

Gary Askin, new to the Rebels at Work community, is doing some innovative policing work, particularly around The War on Drugs, which he says does not exist.

"Here is a five minute presentation I did for Ignite on dispelling the notion that police were ever in the "War on Drugs." Initially some fellow officers were quite concerned but are now buying in."

Kudos to another positive rebel working to change the world. You can learn more about Gary on his site InnovativeCops, or connect with him @garyaskin.

Am I a "minority" or am I a "rebel"? Both!

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: "Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?" And I always gave the same answer: "Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else." I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I've been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It's actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic "DUH" moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn't that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization's leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce--women, minorities--many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet  you often hear leaders say: "It's a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn't quite know how to fit in." or "You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate."

And that's how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity. The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.


What do Rebels Really Think: Poll Results from GovLoop's NextGen Summit

Late last month I was a keynote speaker at GovLoop's NextGen Summit. If you don't know GovLoop, it's the social network for government employees: federal, state, local. You can listen to a followup interview I did on being a government heretic and find a link to the speech here. During the talk I conducted several live polls of the audience (well over 500 I'm sure of which at least 150 answered every question.) on some key questions about being a rebel/innovator/heretic in government. You'll recognize at least one of the questions as something we've asked here at RebelsatWork. Here's the first question about how you learned you were a rebel. What I find encouraging here is that most people learn before they have a horrible experience at work--good news. What is also interesting is that only 7% of those responding said they did not consider themselves rebels. Although the GovLoop audience trends, I'm sure, toward minor acts of rebellion, it's still interesting how many believe there is a better way.

I also asked about why the audience thought rebels (innovators) fail. What I thought was interesting here where how few in the audience selected lack of funding. I would have thought that number might have been higher in a government audience. It is encouraging that so many believed that doing better is not a function of more money.

Finally came the question about what we can do to improve our chances of success. My choice of options was perhaps not the best and there may have been some anchoring effects in play as I asked this question toward the end of my talk.

The fact so many possible solutions got significant support tells me that there are many ways we could improve rebel outcomes.

Only Good Rebels Die Young

It seems like it's appropriate to follow up that last post by Lois on the anger of rebels with what to do if and how to notice when your Rebel energies are getting out of control. The passion--and sometimes the anger--that sharpens the courage of Rebels at Work enough for them to seek to change the status quo does not easily dissipate. But my experience and the conversations I’ve had with many other Rebels at Work tells me we need to be careful to heed the warning signs of rebel flameout. Even good rebels can self-destruct; perhaps it is good rebels that are most in danger of self immolation. So what are some of the signals that a Rebel should pull the plug, at least for a while? What are some particularly difficult scenarios?

  •  The potential for the greatest disappointments comes just after you thought you were about to make progress, about to get a hearing, and you didn't or it all fell through. Most organizations will make several failed runs at initiating real change, pursuing new directions. At these moments, they come looking for those individuals they know have different ideas and ask them to participate in all sorts of task forces and working groups. (My years in government taught me that working groups are groups that do no work but that’s a topic for a different time.) These are parlous days for rebels. They can become giddy with the potential for influence and drop, for a moment, the masks of studied skepticism or nonchalant bantering they wear to conceal the intensity of their feelings. Once the organization discovers that the recommendations for change steer it into uncharted territory, most will abruptly cut the task force off. This can happen multiple times and is crushing for Rebels. So if you can, manage your anger and disappointment, take weeks of deep breaths, go on a vacation, and, for God’s sake, don’t do anything rash.
  • Be mindful that it’s difficult to handle the emotional load of being a rebel when there’s something else going on in your life. And, of course, there is always something else going on in your life. In my case, I was dealing with career disappointments at the same time as I was thinking of myself as the person who could see the future better than most. I couldn't help but compare myself to peers who were advancing more quickly by, as I saw it, choosing to ignore reality. This kind of cognitive dissonance was not good for my soul or my common sense. If you’re experiencing such feelings, walk away.
  • Rebels should also walk away when they begin thinking they have become smarter than everyone else in the organization. This may or may not be true...(cue wry laughter) but it’s just not healthy when your mind starts obsessing over it. It means you have begun to personalize every skirmish and battle in the Long War of Change. Time to retreat and take a break.
  • When you start arguing with people who are your best work friends, then you know you’re reaching an unhealthy breaking point. If you’re a Rebel it’s likely that your good work mates are people who share some of your ideas. When they start looking at you strangely or when you find yourself snapping at them, find a way to recharge and recover before you lose important friendships.
  • At some point as a Rebel at Work, you may find yourself not recognizing others’ descriptions of yourself. This was certainly the case for me during my Agency career when people began to describe me as being cynical and negative. I remember thinking, whom could they possibly be talking about? And yet, unbeknownst to me, that was in fact the person I was projecting and in danger of becoming. When that happens to you, my advice is to divert your energies elsewhere for a while. Find a direct mission-related job and go do it. Look for a rotational assignment outside your own department. Be wary of sacrificing who you are in an attempt to get a troubled organization to become something it’s not ready to be.

The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Last week I attended the MIX Mashup in San Francisco. The MIX is devoted to reinventing management for the 21st century and many of the presentations revolved around being mavericks and rebels at work. The titles of the first three sessions capture the general mood.

  • The End of Hierarchy: Natural Leadership
  • The End of  Bureaucracy: When Everybody (and Nobody) is the Boss
  • The End of the "Employee"

Gary Hamel also set the tone when he declared in his introductory remarks that he feared we are not mad enough about how bad our organizations are and not aspirational enough to fix them.  His fiery energy was inspiring and I tweeted his comment at the time, but, upon reflection, I'm not sure anger is ever a productive rebel emotion. (Please feel free to argue the point.) Aspiration is, however.

My Favorite Presentation...

...was by Japanese businessman Tsukasa Makino, who spoke movingly of how his company, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance, had humanized their business. You can find several of his blog posts on the MIX. I particularly liked his discussion of the LIGHT and DARK side of the FORCE at work.

That's the slide he uses, which you can see more clearly here. I think one of the dangers rebels risk is that, if they become angry, they begin to flirt with the DARK side of the Rebel Force. I think maybe it looks something like this:

More Good Thoughts


Don't do pilots! Experiment instead. I hadn't ever thought of that distinction and God knows I was involved in lots of pilots during my career. But one of the speakers noted that when a change-oriented management team introduces a pilot to the workforce, the implied message is that the team has figured out the right thing to do and now they're going to test it on the employees, aka the guinea pigs. And employees love to make pilots fail. Boy, did that ring true!! There wasn't a pilot I was involved in that the emails and message boards weren't full of just about everything that was wrong with the pilot. And by launching a pilot, aren't you inviting relentless comparison to the status quo? Bad as the status quo may be, it at least benefits from some internal logic and lots of muscle memory. Think instead of encouraging experiments. When you encourage your employees/managers to run experiments, your message is that you're not sure of the answer and you want them to help figure it out.

The power of budgets. There was a good discussion of how companies need to free themselves from the tyranny of budget cycles because they stifle innovation. All true but frankly, as a rebel, if you are able to change how your company budgets, you've pretty much won the entire war. (more on that later.) But Bjarte Bogsnes of Norway's Statoil did describe how his company abolished traditional budget cycles and even the calendar to boot!! When you're dealing with the BBB's (bureaucratic black belts), there's no doubt in my mind that the power of the budget is their most powerful weapon.

Mobilizing the introverts. There was a lovely discussion of how, if you have a knowledge organization and it's a really smart one, then you likely have a lot of introverts. And mobilizing introverts to get behind change efforts can be awkward. You can't count on them to speak up in meetings. And they may not even do a good job proselytizing their work colleagues. Other than engaging introverts one-on-one, not many solutions or good tactics were offered. (Something for us to noodle at RAW.) I think the whole topic of how rebels and rebel managers in organizations mobilize support is underdeveloped. Perhaps it's something we can tackle at our first ever Rebels at Work Conference, which will be held 18 October. You can find more information on that here.

If you're explaining, you're losing. This piece of advice is not from the conference, but comes from a retired senior government official who was sharing lessons from his mentors at a party I attended last night. I'm sure all the rebels who visit our website have been in the meeting where they, or someone else, are trying to explain exactly how their idea will work. Once you go there, you begin losing your momentum and you're stuck trying to explain how the sausage will be made. A sausage that no one has ever tasted. A sausage, in fact, that you've never even cooked before.

The Integrity of the Rebel

I said I would get back to the Statoil example of an organization that's rethought it's budget process and many other sacred ways of doing work. This got me to thinking about the integrity of the rebel. In your workplace, are you suggesting a new way of making widgets that you think is better than the current way of making widgets? Or are you actually offering a fundamental rethink of how the enterprise operates and makes decisions so that it becomes permanently more agile, permanently more contextual, and permanently more sensitive to its own values. Both of these are appropriate but they are quite different from each other.  At first blush I'm tempted to say that the more tactical change effort is easier than the more strategic one, but I'm not so sure. They can both be difficult, and I find it completely believable that in some cases people will resist tactical changes more than they will oppose conceptual ones. Again, another topic for noodling. But it reminds me of something I always worried about as a rebel at work. What if I'm wrong? I cannot escape the fact that my ideas are creations of my ego and that therefore I can never be objective about them. Difficult as it is, I think the rebel must learn to maintain some humility about their beliefs, even if they are mano-a-mano with a status quo that is cock-sure.

Finally, here is a link to a presentation by Pam Weiss of Appropriate Response, who, along with Todd Pierce of, shared their story at the MIX Mashup of how they brought meditation techniques to the workplace.  The introduction of a meditation practice actually correlated with significant increases in productivity and employee satisfaction. First check out Pam's presentation and then read the details of the practical application at the MIX. Perhaps we really can change organizations by teaching people how to breathe.


FORTUNE: Why you should embrace your company heretics

"Too many people still work in organizations that resemble the IBM of their grandfather's (or great-grandfather's) day -- organizations designed to exert tight control at the expense of autonomy, to maximize compliance over individual expression and discretion. Yet if we want originality and invention, we need to fill our organizations with people who ignore the rules, flout convention, question constantly, and experiment fearlessly. We need the rebels and the troublemakers because, as Apple's Think Different campaign put it, "they change things. They push the human race forward."

So starts a great article by Polly LaBarre in today's Fortune Magazine. Polly highlights some examples or organizations that realize that companies need rebels -- they don't need you, including IBM's John Patrick, Kim Spinder, a Dutch Ministry employee whose small rebel action transformed 400+ government offices to collaborate, and our own Carmen Medina of the CIA.

Especially interesting was Seth Godin's view on what it takes to make an organization safe for rebels and heretics:

"There's a big difference between religion and faith," he said. "Religion is the set of rules created to maximize the chances that you will do what the manager wants you to do. A heretic is someone who has faith but could care less about religion."