rebel leader

6 Traits of a Rebel Leader 

In preparation to assume new duties this summer, this is the simply complex guidance I would most like to pass to my new organization. Be a rebel leader that drives revolutionary change, not evolutionary progress. As a senior military leader this may strike you as odd. In traditional thought, the military epitomizes structure and repetition in maintaining the status quo. But this can remain no more in today’s military than in your business. To remain successful, we must strive for positive improvement and a revolution of our processes to become efficiently effective in everything our organizations and we do.

As a military professional, my thoughts always begin with established doctrine. In this case, Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1, Leadership and Force Development, provides key guidance as the basis for fulfilling leadership responsibilities with three simple words: “make things better.” This statement is extremely simple in text, but complex in depth…simply complex. ‘Make things better’ encompasses the ultimate goal of any leader…improvement. In order to improve, you must step outside the status quo. For many years, the buzzwords were “think outside the box.” Well, that is not what we need to do…we need to think inside the box to make fundamental changes of our processes and methods.

Be a rebel that drives revolutionary change, not evolutionary progress – @ChrisRStricklin

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The first step outside the status quo is to break the old definition of rebel leader. The order to “Be a Rebel” does not give you cart blanch to be disrespectful or neglect your duties but directly the opposite. A Rebel leader is any person who resists current controls and tradition. It is rebellion through heretical motivation, which is characterized by and departs from established beliefs and standards.

1. Demand Positive Change

Simple change is not necessarily positive. It is the reason phrases like ‘continuous improvement’ become both white-collar buzzwords and blue-collar jokes. For a change to be positive, it must decrease the time required, increase efficiency, improve structure or increase simplicity. That’s it, simply put. No belt colors, no change coaches, no consulting fees. Every desired or required improvement must meet at least one of these criteria. If it doesn’t, don’t do it.

2. The 5 Levels of Why

Question everything you and your organization does along with the process by which you do it. Question everything must be a condition of employment. And not once, but five times. The Five levels of Why allows you to determine the root cause of any situation. As Fighter Pilots, we use Root Cause Analysis to refine each and every action in our flights. This is how we strive for perfection and refine the impurities of our actions and reactions.

Question everything you and your organization does along with the process by which you do it.

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3. Challenge Your Followers

True leadership is not found in an individual, but the individuals developed. Your success as a leader is not merely based on the success of the organization under your guidance. Your success is based on the improvement of those who surround you. Be confident in yourself such that you can admit your followers can be better than you.

 4. Eliminate Analysis Paralysis

A leader is continually asked to make decisions with incomplete and variable data sets. The choices many times are not right or wrong, but differing degrees of good enough with conflicting second and third order effects. This draws many leaders into analysis paralysis where a decision is delayed into nonexistence because of the continual search for a perfect solution. A dynamic leader knows their worth is determined by their ability to properly analyze situations and take deliberate, calculated risks to move the team forward. A courageous leader knows their worth is determined by their ability to properly analyze situations and take deliberate, calculated risks to move the team forward. Indecision is still a decision and it can deflate a team’s motivation and cease forward progress.

5. Intrinsically Motivate The Team

How do the employees talk about the organization? Do they choose pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘their’ when talking about the company or do they reveal ownership and belonging through their use of phrases like ‘our company’ and ‘our vision’? Many leaders talk about developing teams and establishing clear goals, but few truly understand the complexities and intricacies of establishing the necessary culture of unity which best draws the engagement of every member of the team. If the organization has successfully developed a lexicon and made the corporate vision his or hers, then each and every team member will be intrinsically motivated. Ensure they work with you, not for you. This intrinsic motivation will take them, the team and the organization to levels of success previously thought unachievable. Intrinsic motivation creates self-efficacy. Effective leadership transforms human potential into
 effective performance in the present and 
prepares capable leaders for the future. (AFDD 1-1: Leadership and Force Development)

Ensure employees work with you, not for you

6. Avoid Excuses

Excuses are not beneficial to any relationship nor the success of an organization. When you fail to meet your goal or expectations, own up to the shortcoming/mistake then learn from the situation to ensure the behavior is not repeated. This is USAF Fighter pilots hone their skills and improve toward perfection. Debrief every effort, every meeting and set the example of taking responsibility for your actions both good and bad.

Be A Rebel Leader

Yesterday may have brought you to today, but most likely will not carry you through tomorrow. Embrace new ideas, new methods and always question the assumptions which define your business model, your actions and, more importantly, your thoughts. Being a rebel is not about fighting the system, it is about challenging the status quo. A rebel leader does not tolerate ‘that’s how we have always done it’ thinking. A rebel leader always drives to be efficiently effective regardless of the actions and structures that must change to enable it.

A rebel leader does not tolerate ‘that’s how we have always done it’ thinking

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Be a rebel leader that drives revolutionary change, not evolutionary progress.



Chris R. Stricklin is a combat-proven leader, mentor and coach integrating the fields of dynamic followership, negotiations, leadership, positive change, public relations, public speaking and complex organizational change. His unique experience as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird coupled with Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force allow his unique synthesis of speaking, following, leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. Chris is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science. He authored a negotiation primer which was subsequently published and adopted as required Air Force Pentagon new action officer orientation. He and his wife, Terri, have 4 children.

  • JohnRichardBell

    Terrific post, Chris. As I read your insight, I was reminded of the Pentagon’s pre-Gulf War Millenial Challenge game, illustrated in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. In that game of strategy and tactics, the conventional thinkers with all the real time data and systems were no match for Vietnam vet Paul Van Riper who headed the “enemy forces.” The Pentagon couldn’t have picked a better rebel than Van Riper. As for what the Pentagon learned from this . . . ??

    • Chris R Stricklin


      Van Riper was a phenomenal Rebel– know the rules and use them to your advantage in revolutionary ways! I can’t speak to what the Pentagon learned, but there is a lot we can learn from the Millennium Challenge 2002.

      As you shared in your recent book, Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World, too many balls in the “air divert attention, muddle direction, increase complexity, and in the long run, add to the risk of failure.” The purpose of Rebel Leadership is mission simplification and clarification in developing a clear strategic course and coherence. This strengthens intrinsic motivation and accountability.

  • Ben Simonton

    Good points, Chris, but the key is to listen to your people and respond to what they say (their complaints, suggestions, and questions) to their satisfaction or better. In the process of doing that, your points can be addressed if directly relevant to what the employee wants to say. If they aren’t relevant, then they are just more command and control attempts and no one wants to be told what to do, be controlled, or be preached to. It worked for me in several turnarounds including a nuclear-powered cruiser (“the crew is wrecking the ship”, Admiral Rickover) and a 1300 person unionized group (“your customers hate you so either get rid of the group or fix it, your choice”, Executive VP). By turnaround, I mean raising performance by hundreds of percent thus achieving Stephen Covey senior’s possible performance gain of 500%.

    • Chris R Stricklin

      Thank you Ben, for your points and well wishes.

  • Yuvarajah

    Great insights, Chris. I too am a retired soldier trying to fit into the world of corporate HR. As much as I try to ‘revolutionize” the change, I am often reminded of the reality that the speed of the race is directly and proportionately dependent upon the slowest team member. And, invariably, I find the going tough when there are gaps, inertia and resistance coming from leadership, in particular under disguise of management or people immaturity. The journey of the kind of rebel you describe becomes “treacherous” when the challenging the status quo is narrowly perceived as questioning or undermining the leadership position or authority. Rebels leaders navigating the revolutionary setting face the risk of being misunderstood or overzealous. That’s why I consider myself a HR Ronin. !

    • Craig

      One must rebel from outside the opposing system. You ought to know that.

  • Yuvarajah

    How does one know what approach to adopt – evolutionary vs revolutionary?. Who decides that?. Why do we need an external party as intermediary consultant to facilitate change in an organisation that avoids the elephant in the room. It’s easy to change a technology instantly with funds available, but to transform culture is another thing all together. We need to distinguish between change & transformation to better grasp the potential outcome it produces. I find transformation a bigger and bolder challenge as we moved forwards to redefine the quality of life, envisioned by many levels of generational workforce

    • Chris R Stricklin

      Thanks for your insightful words. I don’t think we do need an “intermediary consultant to facilitate change.” It is within all of us…to be rebel leaders!

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