by Tyler Borders

We tasked one of our interns with an annual project as part of her college practicum: Spend a semester conducting primary and secondary research to determine the qualities of a distinguished leader. Kailee Carneau’s final report and presentation was impressively sound and insightful. She put some agency deliverables to shame.

What are virtually universal traits of distinguished thought leaders?

Rebellion. Heat.

I stopped Kailee during her presentation—at no surprise to my teammates—the moment I heard the word “rebellion.” I wasn’t sure if I had heard her right the first time, and I had to verify. I had to make sure she said “rebellion” and meant it. If you know me well, you know that I love pirates and I fancy my alter ego a pirate. Not the sort that rapes and pillages, but the more legal and ethical variety… The kind that breaks rules in pursuit of progress. The “rebel” archetype is, in fact, an established quality of the Dartlet brand and we train our staff accordingly. If you join Dartlet, you join a company that imbues a rebellious nature in the emblazoned spirit of innovation. If you’re not into that you won’t be into us. Both Scott and myself share a thirst for this mentality, and to our chagrin we now find ourselves attracting rebel innovators to board the ship and sail with us.

Just last month we hired Senior Strategist, David Viggiano, a deeply seasoned executive with 15-years of leadership experience with Syracuse University. When we got to the bottom of Vigg’s personality profile, it read the following: Coach. Fighter. Ringleader. Be still my beating heart. Welcome aboard, Vigg.

See Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s source work on the subject of rebellion if you’re interested in further study. In short, wherever you find meaningful progress you will find rebellion fermenting in the recipe. Distinguished leaders aren’t head-nodders or yes-givers; they’re not seat-warmers or easy-accepters; they are the antonym to these status quo ingredients. Rebellion doesn’t necessitate a black eye patch, dyed hair, or full sleeve arm tattoos. It’s a state of being. Rebellion is resistance to established rules, organized control, and tradition. Stephen Hawking has it. Jeff Bezos has it. There’s a hell of a lot of rebellion lurking behind their respective adult small/medium beige sweaters.

Heat.

Here’s where Scott and I need some adjustment… We are an industrial grade blow torch. We’re quite good at hyper-focused application of heat toward progress. However, as Kailee tells us, truly distinguished thought leaders are equally adept at knowing when to reduce heat and simmer before returning to boil. Noted. We’re committed to working on this.

Heat is the second variable required for progress and distinction. Leaders who are content with simmer as a normative temperature may still enjoy a delicious, hot soup eventually. They might even get enough soup to get full and even stay satisfied. However, rebellion likes Boil, and truly distinctive leaders with improbably goals like Boil, too. Gold boils at 4,892°F — and heat is how you separate the precious metal from the slag. Find me a low-to-medium-heat leadership mentality in an organization while simultaneously pointing to novelty. Not likely. I’ll bet it’s comfortable though. Comfortable counts for something. On the contrary, show me a high-heat-to-boil environment and I will expect to see an amalgam of some unfortunate collateral burns juxtaposed with exhilarated staff and a remarkable outcome in the messy aftermath. You can always apply salve to burns, but you won’t get pure gold without some boil.

The key, then, is recognizing that boil should not be the normative temperature. Heat must come in bursts for the stew—and its cooks—to taste right. Too much boil and things explode. No boil at all and concepts and people are never tested enough to break through.

Rebellion and heat. Rebel fire. The recipe for unusual progress.