Rebels have always occupied a slightly romantic place in our culture. But in the workplace? Not so much. More often than not, conformity is rewarded over unruliness. Rule-followers are just easier to deal with, more predictable. Rebels on the other hand make things uncomfortable, constantly agitating the status quo and dismissing convention. The rebel spirit is sometimes seen as something to be mitigated rather than something to be encouraged.

That thinking needs to change. Our research shows that future-ready leaders are natural self disruptors, equipped with future-oriented and change-ready skills in order to keep responding to fluctuating market demands. For the uninitiated, they look like rebels, but take a closer look at their motivations and behaviours and you’ll see their intentions are good. Harvard professor Francesca Gino calls it “positive deviance” – rule breaking that’s productive rather than destructive – and it’s now a necessary quality for dealing with constant change in a time where the old rules no longer hold up.

But most workplaces aren’t built for rebels. Traditional workplaces have favoured the rule followers rather than rule breakers. So how can you create an environment that celebrates and engages self-disruptive leaders, rather than sidelining them?

But most workplaces aren’t built for rebels. Traditional workplaces have favoured the rule followers rather than rule breakers. Click To Tweet

Look in new places

Disruptors often don’t fit comfortably and neatly into existing talent processes; they’re not necessarily going to be easy to spot in your succession pipeline. Often they present inconsistently against traditional metrics, think the frontline supervisor who gets bored easily but is fantastic with customers. In short – these people don’t naturally rise to the top. Instead, they need to be actively pursued and leveraged in unusual places and in unusual ways.

This means fighting against the usual laws of attraction, that like attracts like. Instead, seeking out and recognising difference is key. Diversity and especially inclusion will become more important than ever, and talent assessment – with true, objective insight, and value – will be vital.

Embrace constructive challenge

Many of these future leaders will already occupy lower-level roles in the company. They are there, ready to be engaged and nurtured. Indeed how they are treated early in their careers is a real concern as this has traditionally been the point in the past where rebellious spirits can easily be broken or pushed out of the business.

It’s crucial that talented people are not blocked from development because they don’t easily match traditional personality or culture criteria. While organisations still need to find a common cultural rallying point for their people, notions of ‘fit’ need to expand to welcome more diverse people.

To avoid this, current leaders and HR professionals must embrace the idea that constructive challenges are positive. This may require shifting away from processes and practices that were perfected in a different business environment and are no longer productive in a world characterised by change.

Let them test themselves

By their nature, self-disruptors are driven to test ideas and approaches to find new and better ways of doing things. The same goes for their personal development. Finding opportunities to allow them to test their aptitude in more challenging leadership roles is essential to engaging this cohort.

The role of existing leaders here is critical. To effectively cultivate a pipeline of self-disruptors, leaders must actively circulate throughout the organisation to stimulate them, teach them new skills and help them experience different ways of working. This constant movement will help nurture important relationships with colleagues of many different backgrounds, experiences, and capacities that will be essential to future success.

To effectively cultivate a pipeline of self-disruptors, leaders must actively circulate throughout the organisation to stimulate them and help them experience different ways of working. Click To Tweet

This doesn’t mean that career advancement is unstructured. If the path becomes too murky, future leaders – particularly millennials who value a clear career advancement path – may disengage or even become negative disruptors. To be effective, this process of testing and experiencing must be guided by clear goals and tracked outcomes to ensure self-disruptors are exposed to the breadth and depth of experiences they need.

These are rebels with a cause – it’s now time for leaders and organisations to not only engage them but prepare them to lead the business into the future.

Learn more about the qualities of self-disruptive leaders in our latest report, The Self-Disruptive Leader.

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About Contributor

Tim Wiseman is an Associate Client Partner for Korn Ferry, based in the firm's Hong Kong office. Tim specialises in the analysis, design, development, and deployment of organisational change strategies including leadership engagement and development, business-process improvement, job role and organisational alignment, communications, workforce transition, and post-implementation value capture.