By Larry Robertson
March 8, 2023
In Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times, author Larry Robertson writes about a new kind of leadership, one that matches these uncertain times and enables organizations to thrive: Rebel leadership. Rebel leadership isn’t what you might assume. It’s a new mindset for thinking and leading, one relevant at every level of the company. Five key insights define it. The following excerpt from his book describes the first insight: “Let them laugh, soul matters most.”
In researching for my first book, A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress, I spoke with 220 highly accomplished individuals, people who hadn’t simply ridden the waves of change repeatedly but had helped generate them. Think for a moment about entrepreneurs and what they do. It’s a very long road from a good opportunity or an innovative idea to actually deriving value. There are endless and often unexpected twists and turns. Hurdles are constantly thrown in their paths. And, especially early on, changemakers such as these stumble far more often than they rise. What drove them forward and through all of that? Among the many eye-opening things that emerged in these conversations, their answer to that question stood out above all others. It’s an answer that’s haunted me ever since, in the way good chi or guardian angels do. The way they most often shared that insight made an impression as well.
“Across your success and across time, is there anything that stands out that you feel has been most important?”
That was the question I’d ask that would trigger these moments. Here’s what would follow. If I were sitting in front of the person as I interviewed them, first would come the “look around.” They’d physically glance behind and past me, sometimes to their left or right, even over their shoulder, as if to see who might be listening. You’d think the look around might be a precaution, a quick judgment as to how or even whether to answer. But their eyes always intently conveyed they had no intention of not answering, bluntly and truthfully. Maybe they were looking to see who might snicker at the answer. That’s when the “lean in” would happen.
Even in phone interviews, sometimes from across the planet, I could feel the lean in, to the phone, to the question–a noticeable pause before answering, not for dramatic effect, but as if to emphasize the seriousness of their belief in what they were about to tell me. And then they’d say it, that single word answer to my question:
Soul, they said. That’s what mattered most.
Soul was what drove a feeling that they had “no choice” but to do what they did. It was what time and again made them recommit, recalibrate, reinvent from scratch, if need be, and adapt and move forward through changes both good and bad. Soul, they said, was what they believed attracted others to them as well–partners, investors, and even customers. It wasn’t capital or connections; not strategy, ideas, or intellectual property. All those things mattered, of course, but only in context. Even so, none of those things could be counted on. Soul–a word they self-selected–was what they credited for their continued success. It was the X-factor, as much as there ever can be such a thing, and in the end, it was the only asset they knew they could rely on.
It’s quite stunning on its own, but it’s closer to breathtaking when you consider that among these individuals were people who ran multimillion-dollar, even multinational organizations. There were those who’d created paradigm-altering products and services, even whole new markets. They came from across the globe and across sectors–businesses and NGOs, for-profits and not-for-profits, large and small, founded and led by women and men alike, and of varying backgrounds and ethnicities, too. All of it made the pattern in their answers striking and valuable–because the insight came from everywhere and was therefore transferable to anywhere. Yes, occasionally one of them might use a synonym, spirit, for instance, or “a knowing.” But as they went on to describe what they meant, to a person, soul was what they eventually arrived at.
In rebel leadership, soul is who you are in the context of what you do and how that ripples out and impacts others. So, on one hand, soul is profoundly personal. But equally important, soul is the connective tissue linking you to others and helping them advance.
Crucially, these rebel leaders don’t just talk about it, they act on it. They prioritize and pursue soul as the primary thing. They use it as a guide to every operational decision. They make sure it’s instilled deeply within the strategy and the culture of the organization. The way these leaders employ soul, attend to it, refine it, invite and fully expect their teams to do the same, is a true rebellious act; not in a risk-taking sense, but because it’s the uncommon leadership act. It’s also the proven difference-maker. It’s the first key insight in Rebel Leadership, and the one out of which all the rest grow.
Excerpted from Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. Copyright 2020 by Larry Robertson.
Larry Robertson is an innovation and strategy advisor helping organizations and their leaders discover value at the nexus of leadership, entrepreneurship, and creativity. A Fulbright Scholar, he’s the internationally acclaimed author of 3 award-winning books: Rebel Leadership, The Language of Man and A Deliberate Pause. He’s also a popular columnist with Inc. Magazine, The Creativity Post, CEO World Magazine, SmartBrief, Fast Company, and other publications.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.