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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

When The Rebels Win

Grand Tour

Rebels are often seen as heroes: charismatic, energetic people who shake up the accepted order and free the people from the tyranny of The Establishment. But what happens when the rebels win and themselves become The Establishment? Suddenly, they’re the bosses – and life changes. Now they find themselves being rebelled against in turn. Sometimes they adapt; sometimes they don’t.

Politics has suddenly got interesting again, with plenty of rebels in charge. Take Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader of the Labour Party in 2015. He had voted against his own party 617 times as a backbencher. Suddenly, this serial loner was the one expecting loyalty from his own MPs, seeking to impose his own views and policies on a restless party. I think it’s fair to say he – and his followers – have found the transition difficult.

Or take the Brexiteers. It’s pretty clear that Boris, Gove et al never expected to win. They were happy to push against the system, burnishing their credentials as heroes to the fractious. They didn’t expect to end up in charge – and ducked out of their new-found responsibilities with indecent haste. As we know, Theresa May threw Boris the lifeline of the job of Foreign Secretary, a lifeline he eagerly accepted, only to find himself repeatedly in trouble for his off-the-cuff comments about allies and foes alike. We’ll see what transpires.

Most prominently, of course, Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider who now finds himself in the ultimate seat of power. Disgruntled and disillusioned after years of perceived humiliation, he convinced a significant proportion (actually a minority) of the American electorate that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington DC’s Establishment – lobbyists, politicians, advisers and civil servants. Even as the most powerful man on the planet, he still quite obviously needs enemies and oppressors to rail against. He is busy picking fights with the legal system, the media, the CIA, the National Parks Service, etc.

And that’s where the problems start. The resisters beget resistance. Trump is already faced with an increasing array of his own rebels: the Attorney General (who he fired), diplomats (all of whom he has fired), the judiciary etc. Not to mention a rapidly lengthening list of entire countries including neighbours (Mexico), perceived foes (China) and even longstanding allies (Australia) alike. Volatile times.

It’s not just politics. When the Top Gear presenters were plucky underdogs, doing their thing and pushing Auntie BBC’s tolerance to the limits, they made some fantastic telly. Their new, ahem, vehicle, The Grand Tour, falls decidedly flat, however. Now that they have a vast budget, the ability to write whatever script they want and perform whatever stunt comes to mind, it just doesn’t work. This problem reached its apogee during the jet flypast in the opening episode. James May, in particular, looked as if he was going to be sick. It’s just … wrong.

Finally, we can see this game play out in business all the time, for example during CEO succession. When Jack Welch became the boss of GE at the tender age of 45, he was plagued by those who had been his rivals during the succession process. Once, he had been a rebel like them; now he was the boss, and the rebels couldn’t figure out how to join him in the new Establishment of the company, so they kept rebelling. You can imagine how that ended.

When Jack chose his own successor, Jeff Immelt, he didn’t give the two other candidates the chance to become a problem. He fired them on the spot.


© Patrick Macdonald 2017

Picture credit: Amazon

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