Why rebel leadership is so important in today’s landscape

Rebellion doesn’t have to be antithetical to leadership. Philip Hendrickx explains how stepping outside the boundaries of conventional leadership can be a good thing.

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When many of us think of rebel leaders, it’s perhaps easier to instantly bring up the idea of controversy, disruption and other negative connotations. However, being a ‘rebel’ isn’t necessarily a problem – if done so in an appropriate way, of course.

In fact, in a recent Robert Half study – the Boardroom Navigator 2023 – almost a third (30%) of private equity respondents indicated that they are looking to bring leaders into their portfolio businesses who demonstrate the ‘ability to rebel’. So why take this approach now and what makes a good rebel?

The need for change

It’s important to first highlight that in many instances of rebellion in leadership, the need is for individuals to drive purposeful change that will benefit the business, rather than create disruption for the sake of it. Given the significant pace of change in the global economy, what makes a company competitive today will be different in just a few years. Having leaders able to shake up the norm will be beneficial to organisations in keeping up with this wider evolution and continuing on their growth trajectory, no matter where this may eventually take the firm.

A recent leadership study by McKinsey explains how the role of these individuals has changed; “Leaders must evolve beyond being managers seeking incremental improvement to become visionaries with the courage to craft a resonant purpose and boldly imagine and pursue the future.” Given how much the ‘future’ can shift, leaders need to be bold enough to drive changes that might not be met with company-wide acceptance.

The McKinsey study references the example of Netflix as a brand that has been shaped by bold intentions. Fifteen years ago, the brand was a DVD rental company, but the then-CEO had visions of something new and different – a “global entertainment distribution business that provides a unique channel for film producers and studios.”

Fast-forward to today and this rebellion against the traditional USP of the brand has led to Netflix becoming a significantly successful entity worldwide. This type of rebel leadership creates disruption for a positive purpose, and that’s the skill that private equity firms want to bring into their portfolio businesses.

Identifying good rebel leaders

Clearly rebel leaders can have a positive impact on a business, but given that they are expected to influence change and challenge engrained processes and perceptions, finding individuals who will strike the right balance of disruption and corporate growth isn’t easy. Neither is it without its own risks.

However, there are a number of considerations that can help make this transition more streamlined for a business and set firms up for the best possible success:

  • Focus on authenticity: A rebel leader might not have the usual attributes of senior teams, but one key element of these individuals is that they are authentic. Identifying this authenticity isn’t always common practice in businesses, but will become more valuable over time.
  • Look beyond the usual leadership routes: Given that those with the aptitude for positive rebellion aren’t commonly recruited for, it is important that firms look beyond the usual talent pools for these leaders. If these individuals are to challenge the norm, they need experience and insight beyond the existing leadership. That can mean looking at different sectors for those with transferable attributes, or even improving diverse hiring at leadership level to attract more candidates from under-represented groups.
  • Embrace difficult changes: We’ve all heard the adage “things will get worse before they can get better”. While it may not be as daunting as it sounds, there may be some negative changes to the business that will simply be necessary for future growth. Rebel leaders will be well-placed to steer this, but shouldn’t necessarily be penalised for it. Change can be difficult, but if you want to truly make the most of a rebel, they need to be given the opportunity to cause disruption.

Final thoughts

With the disruption to global markets that we’ve seen in recent years, rebel leaders are becoming more valuable to firms. In fact, our Boardroom Navigator data also showed that two-thirds of private equity investors are planning to make leadership changes in their portfolio businesses to navigate the current climate. They want leaders who can handle supply chain disruption, steer firms through high inflation and address ongoing regulation and compliance issues.

In order to deliver against these aims, bold leaders with rebel qualities are a necessity, and those that find the right rebels now, will thrive during future disruptions on a micro and macro level.

Philip Hendrickx - Managing Director at Robert Half Executive Search
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