The rebel leader

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- By Stephane Leblanc

Rebel leaders are essential to business transformations. They are courageous. They challenge the status quo. They are visionary. They disturb old ways of thinking and doing. They bring organizations to a whole new level of performance. If... they are well supported by the organization.

Companies can do two things: they can embrace them or they can try to put them in a cage or reject them. The latter is the most common occurence as it takes a special leader to manage a rebel leader and I have found that many large traditional organizations often reject the elements that are working the hardest to transform them.

I have been a rebel leader all my life and it has not been an easy journey as I have mostly worked in large organizations where conformity and formality is important. I worked for a large international manufacturing company for more than two decades and I worked hard to be a transformation agent and I led several large operational transformations that created a whole new level of performance as well as high employee engagement and customer loyalty. But the journey was not easy as some of these transformations were achieved against all odds.

I remember one time as a young leader presenting a key project to completely transform our operations on one of our product lines. After a trip to japan to learn lean manufacturing from Toyota, my managers and I had conceived a brand new assembly line for our product. Something what had never been done in our company and had the potential to create a major breakthrough in performance.  I went to present this project to our President and his senior executive team. The response I got was not what I expected as the President and his CFO said: this part of our business has never worked, why would it work now? You can do the project, but we don't have any hope that it will work. I remember that day vividly and how I thought to myself: how can the senior executive team not give better support to one of their young leader that is tying to transform the business? How can they be so negative and sarcastic?  How can they stop progress with their way of being?

Many other leaders would have been discouraged by such a meeting and would not have had the courage to go ahead with the project. Not me. As a rebel leader, such reaction from the senior leaders of my organization gave me the fuel to continue as I said to myself: I will prove them wrong. How can aligning our operations to the principles of Toyota, the world leaders in lean manufacturing, not work?

This is what I did with my team and the project was a huge success as we reduced cycle time and costs by more than 30 percent and significantly improved quality as well as employee engagement and customer loyalty. It still took 2 years for the President to recognize the accomplishment with my team and he only did so after a key customer commented to him on how impressed he was with the breakthrough that had been done.

Several years later, a new executive joined our organization as Group President and after he got to now me, he said to many of his executives to embrace me as a transformation agent even if I was disturbing them a lot as this is exactly what he expected of me. It is obvious he knew how to manage rebel leaders and I suspect he had also been one himself earlier in his career.

Rebel leaders are essential to the transformation of organizations and they must be managed adequately not to kill their drive and creativity with excessive control and formality.

You need to identify these rebel leaders in your organization and support them in a way that they will flourish and thrive.