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Where are the contrarian leaders?

Few of today's politicians resemble the contrarian leader who resists within the tribe.

4 min read



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I often interview and share the stories of entrepreneurial leaders. I feel that their stories are our best teachers. Reading about the experience of others in their own words is powerful and usually does a better job of informing us.

But, in this article, I am going to depart from that because I feel I have an important lesson to share, and the teachers are our elected officials.

I freely admit that genesis of this article is in direct response to the current political climate. Yet at the same time, I want to assure you that I am not trying to make a political statement. What I hope to accomplish is to shed a little light on a valuable leadership lesson. I am concerned with the lack of leadership being shown and even more worried that we are going to emulate what we witness. That is not good for our country or our businesses.

Leadership comes in many packages. There are visionary leaders, servant leaders, charismatic leaders, and more. But, in my opinion, the most difficult and often the rarest form is the contrarian leader. This is a person who, as a member of an aligned tribe, is willing to speak truth to power even when doing so can put their best interests at risk.

What we are all witnessing today is the vacuum created by the relative absence of this form of leadership. It is much easier and expected to resist from outside of the tribe. Democrats resist Republicans, and Republicans resist Democrats. The contrarian leader is the one who resists within the tribe. On either side of the aisle, we are hard-pressed to find any who are willing to do just that. Oddly, that absence creates more divisiveness, because it polarizes the voices being heard.

Back in my days as an executive, I valued the contrarian in the room who would willingly challenge the group’s thinking. There were times that I reacted poorly, found myself frustrated by the need to explain my rationale. But, for every one of those times I was frustrated, that same contrarian saved me from taking the team down the wrong path.

Every idea is fallible and comes with unintended consequences. The contrarian gives voice to that, even when doing so is deeply unpopular.

It is the difference of being nice and being kind. Being nice means you agree. Being kind requires a willingness to disagree when the moment requires and to fight for what you believe to be right and true. I prefer kindness and in today’s climate we are seeing far more niceness than kindness and as a country we are the worse for it.

The good news? I see this as a teachable moment. As entrepreneurs, we must be willing to be contrarian leaders. We can’t disrupt and innovate by simply going along with the tribe. By its nature, entrepreneurship requires a different worldview. We are solving problems that others haven’t and meeting unmet needs that have been left unfulfilled. By our nature, we are disagreeing with the common wisdom. Entrepreneurship is a form or radical leadership. In my mind, it is entrepreneurs who will be the agents of change.

We can help teach the leaders of our country to speak truth to power, helping them become the contrarian leaders we so desperately need in this current political climate. At least, one can hope, and to hope is contrarian.


Elliot Begoun is the founder of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow and become scalable and investable. He works with clients to design and execute customized go-to-market strategies that drive sales, build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and New Hope.

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