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Opinion: Why it Pays to Embrace Rebel Talent

Stephen Rosa is a 2012 Inner City 100 alumnus and award recipient.  He currently serves as CEO/chief creative officer of (add)ventures and is an Emmy-winning writer/producer. This blog was written in response to his experience in the Inner City 100 program from 2007 to 2012.

I was sitting in a Harvard Business School (HBS) lecture hall a few years ago when Professor Francesca Gino, Ph.D. entered wearing a Hugo Boss power business suit and bright red Converse Chuck Taylors. A powerful lecturer, she inspired me and other small business owners and Inner City 100 (IC100) award winners to keep being who we are – rebels.

Entrepreneurs are rebellious by nature, especially the 100 who chose to start the fastest-growing small businesses in America’s inner cities. Of all the challenges entrepreneurs face, perhaps fear and self-doubt are the most formidable.

When starting out, everyone calls your business idea, plan and dream crazy. That is, until years later, when you begin receiving awards for achieving what people called you crazy for thinking, let alone attempting.

Awards and honors, just like the IC100 from the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), founded by renowned Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, are created with a mission to ignite urban economic revitalization. ICIC established the IC100 awards to identify the 100 fastest-growing companies working in America’s inner cities, promote their success and provide exposure nationally for company founders and chief executive officers like myself.

The celebration includes a first-class conference, networking opportunities with major corporate sponsors like Chevron, FedEx and fellow winners, as well as executive education and mentoring from Harvard Business School professors. However, what I found the most rewarding of all was knowing that I am not alone in my unconventional thinking and rebelliousness.

Being surrounded by 99 other talented, socially conscious and successful rebels is inspiring. Add learning from genius Harvard Business School professors and published authors like Dr. Porter and Dr. Gino, and the entire experience is empowering.

Most of all, it’s intoxicating when you realize that smarter, better educated and more credentialed business leaders than yourself share some of your deepest held leadership beliefs. Almost as intoxicating as a lecture or read from Dr. Gino.

Her latest book Rebel Talent is about personal and organizational confidence in an ever-changing business world. For entrepreneurs, it’s having the self-confidence to persevere. For organizations, it’s fostering the internal and external tension that drives both confidence and competence that triumphs over complacency.

It’s the type of confidence that makes for successful, engaged and satisfied employees. Not the timid, fearful and compliant “yes people” who too many insecure business leaders surround themselves with. It’s confidence born of conflict and tension that creates courage to embrace rebel talent and explore revolutionary concepts.

Control is an illusion in today’s business world, just like any expectation of privacy. I would argue that old school, control-style management that fears rebel talent is the reason why so many companies and entire industries have been disrupted.

The old guard blames disruption either on Amazon or points fingers at the millennials and centennials of Generations Y and Z for being entitled and impossible to please. Yet there is no generational divide, technology or social media that causes disruption. It just speeds it up. Disruption is a self-inflicted wound of complacency.

Under Founder & CEO Jeff Bezos’s leadership, Amazon thrives thanks to a culture that embraces rebel talent. Amazon’s rebels take nothing as a given and no customer experiences for granted.

Likewise, Generations Y and Z are not entitled, just empowered by coming of age in a digital world. They only demand better experiences and authenticity. To call being confident in your  career and consumer expectations entitled is shallow and unjust.

Confidence that creates healthy tension within organizations to drive change is something we should all aspire to. Dr. Gino unearths a formula for healthy tension that leads to innovative business growth:

Novelty + Curiosity + Perspective + Diversity + Authenticity = Tension (Growth) = Confidence + Engagement = Rebel Talent.

These five formulary building blocks are the tools rebel leaders use to foster safe places for “tension” to grow.

In Dr. Gino’s own words, “Rebel leadership means fighting our natural human urges for the comfortable and the familiar.” To unlock our potential, we must allow tension and discomfort to arise in our work and personal lives and Dr. Gino shows us how.

Little did I know, that day when I first learned from Dr. Gino in her Hugo Boss power suit and red Converse kicks, I was part of an experiment. One that proved how even a little non-conformity can make a big impression and change perception in counterintuitive ways.

We all learned in high school history class that a few rebels can lead a huge revolution. So please join me and Dr. Gino as we combat complacency, conquer competition and counteract devastating disruption in its tracks.


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