Rebellion is a disease

I've always been a bit of a rebel

This column originally appeared on the occasion of the Big Marketing Congress in the magazine for Marketing (Tijdschrift voor Marketing).

The Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe argued in his book, On Being Normal and Other Disorders, that our definition of what’s normal and abnormal is largely determined by the culture in which the behaviour takes place. You can go to jail for mouthing the song Happy in Iran. And depending on your wealth, the same behaviour can be labelled here as eccentric or mentally disturbed.

Rebellion is also a notion that depends very much on the context in which it takes place. If the younger generation rages against the establishment, their rebellion is labelled as adolescent. If a successful entrepreneur like Richard Branson does it, it becomes a strategy worshipped by gurus like Seth Godin.

There’s a sneaky side to rebellion: We always rewrite history, after it has taken place. Daniel Kahneman calls this the halo effect: our natural tendency to reshape a series of events into one coherent story. Because Steve Jobs was quirky and successful, many business books examine the importance of vision and quirkiness for business success. But if you look at it objectively, there were a thousand rebels before Steve Jobs who went through hell and failed. Apple’s success is a combination of luck, chance and talent. There is no predictive value for the success of rebellion.

Some time ago, the British director of strategy Russell Davies gave a simple but striking definition of what a good strategist is. I think this definition describes rebels perfectly: a good strategist/rebel is someone who gets other people to do things. It’s that simple. At an agency, a bad strategist is a person who believes he’s really smart, but doesn’t get others to act. A successful rebel is someone who can inspire action in other people, who otherwise wouldn’t have done things.

Looking at it in this way, the true rebels might be those who disguise themselves as reliable C-level executives to the board, while innovating quietly behind the scenes. People who can drive the tank, and simultaneously fight disruption. Most rebels who behave and act like rebels are probably the worst leaders. It reminds me of the former CEO of Virgin Express, a portly Englishman of a certain age. When an interviewer asked him how he felt, as an elderly man in a two-piece suit, to be operating in such a hip e-commerce company, he replied, Yes, I’ve always been a bit of a rebel.

Tom de Bruyne
SUE Amsterdam


PS. If you want to master the art of influence yourself, join the Behavioural Design Academy now.

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