If you want to be a great leader, you have on your team or will soon hire, benign subversives. These are desirable team employees but not for the usual reasons.
What is a benign subversive? Great question!
A benign subversive may be a naysayer or simply someone who sees things very differently. She (or he) stands out because she doesn’t subscribe to the “groupthink” of a solid enterprise. Moreover, she isn’t shy about sharing her thoughts, ideas or criticism. Sometimes “hard to take”, this person really has a lot to offer.
As a great leader, you can corral the worthwhile opinions, analysis or criticism without taking the “sting” that often attaches, personally. In fact, having the support of a benign subversive may be the magical formula to resolving serious, entrenched issues in your product, service, operations or strategy.
A benign subversive is a person working for the overall benefit of the organization but in unique, often not aligned with the protocol, ways. In other words, doing her own thing while bringing about desirable results – often great results.
The benign subversive can have irregular work habits or irreverent meeting protocol. She may show up in strange dress or pontificate about weird food fetishes, spout strong opinions about matters most people consider private.
Does it matter if her offerings are brilliant?
In the old days, these people were demoted or even fired. Keeping to a protocol was so highly valued that anyone playing a different game was out! And naysaying wasn’t allowed.
Today, we’re finding that especially astute great leaders hire and nurture these people. Though they work with fuzzier lines to their box, are a bit messier with their colors, benign subversives bring original thinking to their problem solving. They often think so far out of the box, they come up with innovative products or services. Or even question core values and force everyone else to do so!
Another appeal of these folks may be that they invite new customers or clients into the organizations – nontraditional ones, more like themselves, opening up new income streams.
Gary R. Coulton writes:
History is littered with examples of leaders, organisations and even governments whose drive to uphold an increasingly untenable core vision mutates into self-fulfilling “groupthink.” The organisation ends up assuming the best of everything and never prepares for the worst.
Schlomo Ben Hur, Nikolas Kinley and Karsten Jonsen describe this destructive scenario wonderfully in their paper “Coaching Executive Teams to Reach Better Decisions.”
“Leaders can get stuck in groupthink because they’re really not listening, or they’re listening only to what they want to listen to, or they actually think they’re so right that they’re not interested in listening. And that leads to a lot of suboptimal solutions in the world.” ~Jacqueline Novogratz founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture capital fund
And if you’re sold on the desirability of these, you’ll still have to learn to nurture them ( and transcend your own discomfort). Dealing with these team members may not be easy – at first. What’s required is curiosity and a re-frame of your thinking. Here are seven key steps:
1. Center yourself. If you are grounded, you’re less likely to be triggered by what you’ll hear.
2. Assume the benign subversive has the organization’s best interests at heart (that’s the re-frame required).
3. Get very curious about what she or he brings to the table. Ask lots of questions. Hear her out. Take notes. Thank her.
4. Don’t commit. Tell her you’ll reflect on what she brought.
5. Reflect – really think about the content of the message, rather than the method of delivery. (Often these aren’t diplomatic in their presentation. So what? Its the ideas you’re after.)
6. Try offering these ideas to other decision makers in your own language, with a positive spin to see what might be added, subtracted, altered or dismissed, then reflect some more.
7. Decide – as the leader. Take action, even it is no change at all.
By nurturing the benign subversive you’ll guarantee fresh viewpoints, different insights, original processes and an end to “groupthink.” But even better, you’ll cultivate your own curiosity and flexibility as a leader – qualities that lead to greatness.
So begin your search now.
And for more great resources and insights like these, I invite you to listen to this strategy session. It offers tools, strategies, and mindsets for staying calm in chaos, choosing effective action, massive productivity (with minimal stress), and the confidence to take the right, strategic leaps in your business so you can create success, faster.