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From Rebel to Leadership
6 min read

From Rebel to Leadership

From Rebel to Leadership

What physics terms "Inertia" is status quo for a society. All societies and systems (even if they are not optimal) are in equilibrium. Which means, there is resistance whenever a change is suggested.

In such a state of equilibrium is where a Rebel rises. A Rebel talks about how things can be different and paints a new picture, and also steps forward showing his/her commitment towards it.

If you haven't seen the talk by Derek Silverman on "How to start a movement", I would highly recommend it.

The Rebel is the lone nut, who has the gumption to stand up when everyone else is sitting.


The key for the Rebel is to then simplify the message so that others can join in, and can also recruit others to the cause - what you have now is a movement and if it is forceful, it is a revolution.

In Indian Mythology, this is Shiva at work. Things have to be destroyed before they can be built back again.

And this is how society in the past had progressed forward. Every time there was a radical idea, there was blood to be spilled.

This is the reason why after an election, and the old government goes out and a new government comes in, it is a sheer miracle - a concept that mankind has engineered to move forward without spilling blood. It gives me goosebumps when you see "peaceful transfer of power" in action. Power doesn't relegate so easily - no one in the history of the world has ever relegated power that they had to someone else, or given up parts of it - unless they were made an offer they couldn't refuse (and how constitutional monarchies came to be). So next time you witness a swearing in ceremony for a new government, remind yourself that it is a miracle.


But this idea of being a Rebel, starting a revolution, and wielding power are what we as entrepreneurs call "Disruption".  

As an entrepreneur, there is a time to be a rebel, there is a time to lead a movement, and there is a time to become a leader. If you do not see the signs and transition, it ends up in disaster.

Folks like Gandhi and Subash Chandra Bose who fought the freedom struggle for India understood this really well. Gandhi was very clear that his job was to ensure that there was a movement. He clearly drew the line when it came to the transfer of power.

He groomed folks like Vallabhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru to carry the beacon from there. So much so, that Gandhi did not even participate in the constituent assembly meetings where the constitution was being drafted. The freedom was won, a new nation was born, and it was now upto others to pick up the baton from there. And that is his legacy.


Travis Kalanick who started Uber was a Rebel. He painted a vision where consumers (not cab drivers and companies) were in charge and it took both a revolution (by changing regulation) and a movement (acquiring mass consumers who opted to the new model) to bring about the change.

What however did not happen is Travis transitioning from being a revolutionary, to becoming a leader. That meant, the company and culture looked at sabotaging everything that could potentially threaten them - and companies like Lyft bore the brunt of their sabotage. It also bred a very toxic culture internally. It took the outsting of the CEO to salvage that company.

You Either Die A Hero Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain.

When a company, that is the disruptor, had now succeeded and has both adoption as well as a war chest of resources, and is still in rebel mode - it starts to burn itself down to the ground.


There is a time to be a rebel - to create a platform for yourself, but once you have a place to stand and a lever, you have to transition from Rebel to Leader, from Entrepreneur to business(wo)man.

You have to start putting away the impulse to disrupt things and focus on building things. Waking up a new idea, when you are halfway between a product is a distraction. You are now the problem.


A more recent example of this in India's history of politics would be the Anna Hazare movement and the emergence of Aravind Kejriwal. I would say the Inability of AAP to succeed in the trajectory where it was headed - hailed as India's political startup - was because there was too much of a rebel still left in AK. A rebel became a movement, but failed to build an organization (its hard to do that if you don't relegate and empower others).


The other icon who had a similar problem was Steve Jobs. He built up Apple as a company that was the Rebel. The culture had permeated everywhere that they were the counter culture to everything. But that also meant that they had slightly gotten off track (that the customer doesn't know what they want) and released a slew of products that didn't find traction. On top of this, was a young Steve Jobs who walked into offices late, in slippers and sat in board meetings with his feet on the table.

The Rebel had not died. So like Travis, he had to be banished, before he burned down the company. And thankfully, he learned his lessons and came back to the helm, this time a far more refined leader.


One of the ways that disruptive entrepreneurs tackle this, is by bringing in a reliable operator and the founder scaling down.

Mark Zuckerberg did see the world differently. And perhaps a bit naively and without the nuances and complexities that plague our society. What was built as a tool to democratise advertising, so that even small businesses can effectively target anyone in the world fell into the hands of politicians who used it to microtarget the vulnerable with messages of hatred.

When questioned by the authorities, the stark difference of living in the silicon valley bubble and real world came through - and some of those early videos are painful to watch.

Facebook did a very smart thing by making two changes - by bringing in Eric Schmidt and coaching Zuckerberg to transition from a Rebel to a Leader. And by bringing in a capable operator - Sheryl Sandberg to run operations.


Elon Musk's legacy lives on partly because of a similar setup. I don't think it is possible to muzzle the personalities of entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk by appropriateness.

However, the way to manage it has been to have capable operators who are in charge to keep things sane, their roles are clearly defined so that the lights are kept on in the company, while the rebel entrepreneurs continue their chase for the stars with more "absurd goals" (it is a term that SpaceX uses).

Gwynne Shotwell is the COO of SpaceX who keeps the business side of SpaceX going and money coming in, so that Elon musk can keep doing what he does - pushing things to the limit.

But when the company brings in someone like that, it has to give them enough space to stand. In the case of Gwynne and SpaceX, she is the COO of the business (in the sense that she reports to the CEO) but she is also the President of the Board, which gives her the rapport of the board members and investors - which keeps Elon in Check.

Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos says that he finds day to day operations mundane and as such as hired operators and he focuses on projects that the public will see 10-12 years from now.

When an entrepreneur realises that they have a capability to start a fire, and can potentially burn things down as well,  putting checks and balances around them so that they compound on the residual capacity of the organization, is when they create value.


While most of this applies to governments and organizations, this applies to individuals as well.

Every thought leader starts off with a radical idea and vision, and if there is buy in, there is a movement. But over time, your audience wants to know how to build on that new vision and the intricacies of it, not thinking of a radical new idea everyday.

Seth Godin talked about this in an interview, when someone asked him why his book titles have become more subdued over the years, and that was this answer - that he is no longer a rebel, but is now a builder. So you don't see titles like "Purple Cow" or "all marketers are liars" anymore, you see more subdued tones, because he knows he doesn't have to preach to his audience, they get the point, but now they want things to get done and fulfill the promise of the vision that was one laid out.

It's also the reason why you will notice that none of Seth Godin's posts have crazy amounts of retweets or likes. There is seldom space to argue or debate there - then again, he isn't looking to disrupt, he is building, so it serves the purpose well. Unlike a Naval Ravikant, who is in disruption mode right now.


If you map the radicalness of thought and what spurs an idea or a movement, it weirdly looks like the S-curve of Technology and Innovation. It also makes sense, that we see that pattern - it happens in constructive progress over and over again.

The evolution that one has to go through is in understanding this larger trend, and knowing that there is a personal transformation of sorts needed, to go from this visionary / passionate rebel, to building a movement, to then building an organization and fulfilling the promise. If you keep abandoning your movements halfway through, or are just perpetually a rebel, thats a lonely path to be in.

I believe that many of the early innovators, like Tesla, Gutenberg, Joseph Swan and likes, got stuck in that track, whereas folks like Edison succeeded, is because they were able to evolve and reinvent themselves.

How's that for a musing? :)

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