Learning To Lead The Troublemakers

/NOTE/ The following is a guest post by Dennis N.T. Perkins, and is excerpted from his book, Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition (second edition)

In difficult leadership situations, we are often tempted to ignore or isolate individuals whose personalities rub us the wrong way or who have a knack for stirring up trouble. Although this is an understandable reaction, it is the wrong one. It only creates space for further problems, and rejecting dissidents is ultimately detrimental to the organization. A more productive response — however counterintuitive it may seem — requires doing just the opposite:

  • Identify those individuals or groups that might be undermining your leadership.
  • Be proactive and keep troublemakers close by.
  • Find ways to minimize the negative impact of their behaviors.
  • Make sure these people are engaged, in some way, in the decision-making process.
  • Treat everyone, including dissidents, with respect, even when they are antagonistic.
  • Be willing to set limits, and make it clear that this works both ways. Inappropriate, rude, or bullying behavior cannot be tolerated.
  • Avoid the temptation to denigrate malcontents and keep your personal opinions about people to yourself — and your closest advisers.
  • Leaders who are proactive in dealing with individuals who have the potential to be dissidents can avoid antagonistic relations further down the road.

In one company, two men were equally capable for the job of CEO. One got the job and one became the COO. In order to prevent unnecessary conflict, the CEO decided to share the limelight by insisting all public appearances be attended by both of them, including all photographs and company meetings. This reinforced the message that they were a team, and the inherent acknowledgment of the COO’s work in making the new venture a success was a huge motivating factor for the COO. As a result of these efforts, what could have been a disaster turned into a complementary relationship. Together, they led the company in creating a new culture, a solid friendship, and an exciting new venture.


The above is an excerpt from the book Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, Second Edition © Dennis N.T. Perkins, All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books – A Division of the American Management Association.

Author Bio
Dennis N.T. Perkins, Ph.D.,
 author of Leading at The Edge, Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, Second Editionis Chief Executive Officer of The Syncretics Group, a consult­ing firm dedicated to effective leadership in demanding environments. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he served as a Marine company commander and later a faculty member of the Yale School of Management. He has taken his passion for The Edge to Antarctica, where he retraced Shackleton’s journey, and now resides in Madison, Connecticut.

Margaret P. Holtman and Jillian B. Murphy are consultants specializing in leadership, coaching, and team development.

For more information please visit http://www.syncreticsgroup.com and http://www.amacombooks.org

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Learning To Lead The Troublemakers

  1. As someone who does leadership work form the developmental side , the points in the article are well conceived. When someone has shown themselves to be a troublemaker, they actually are doing the company a favor. Most troublemaking arises from a personal investment at an issue at hand. Both finding a role for these folks as well as internal personal work go hand in hand with the points above. Someone willing to agitate has energy to help create given the right course corrections.


    • Thank you for the affirming comments Alan. I agree that finding a way for those who are disruptive to make a meaningful and significant contribution can alleviate some of the angst.