Wise Leaders Embrace “Benign Subversives”

Benign Subversives

We all hate naysayers, snipers, and backroom gossips. They subvert our vision, undermine our message and divert attention from our objectives. They must be rooted out, disciplined, fired!

“Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.” ~ Henry Steele Commager

Valuing the Truth

I understand you, I really do. But if you are to excel as a leader you must develop a taste for high quality. sometimes unpalatable, knowledge about the “State of the nation.” You need to discern clearly between corrosive people and other people who simply don’t see it your way, but are nonetheless well-meaning and really want the organisation to succeed. These are the “Benign Subversives.”

As a leader, you should embrace them as important allies, uncomfortable as it may be at first!

Recognizing the Benign Subversives

How can you recognise Benign Subversives and how best to employ their energy? The answer is to re-frame your impression of them and their objectives and see how you can learn from them in support of your own strategy and aims. History is littered with examples of leaders, organisations, and even governments whose drive to uphold an increasingly untenable core vision mutates into self-fulfilling “groupthink.” The organisation ends up assuming the best of everything and never prepares for the worst. Schlomo Ben Hur, Nikolas Kinley, and Karsten Jonsen describe this destructive scenario wonderfully in their paper “Coaching Executive Teams to Reach Better Decisions.”

“Leaders can get stuck in groupthink because they’re really not listening, or they’re listening only to what they want to listen to, or they actually think they’re so right that they’re not interested in listening. And that leads to a lot of suboptimal solutions in the world.” ~Jacqueline Novogratz

The Benign Subversive is Your Antidote

Leaders readily employ expensive external executive coaches to assist in their personal quest for understanding and success. They accept their challenges and inconvenient observations and pay highly for the privilege.

Great coaches act like human mirrors showing their clients the truth in their thinking, feeling and acting.

If you re-frame each internal Benign Subversive in this role you’ll see them as a positive force for purposeful change, not an enemy.

Recalibrating Your Team

If you publicly affirm their valuable contribution and encourage them, the quality of their contribution improves as they become more internally motivated.

What’s more, other less assertive people will begin to contribute.

The richness and utility of this transparent information stream is the granular intelligence that great leaders and organisations thrive upon. From a research perspective, De Dreu and West concluded in 2001 that, “minority dissent stimulates creativity and divergent thought, which, through participation, manifest as innovation.” What the Benign Subversive observes may remain inconvenient and uncomfortable, but is a vital contribution to avoiding failure or achieving success. Rely on them to give you another view, one which would otherwise be invisible to you. As leader, you then have the choice to accept or reject their views but at least your decisions will be based on more complete information. Remember this…

“It is easy to believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we agree.” ~Leo McKern

Taking the Next Steps

Now consider this:

  • Notice who in your team or organisation exhibits the characteristics of a Benign Subversive. How do you view the – problem or solution?
  • Gently encourage objective, non-judgemental observation and criticism; how do people respond? Decide how best to exhibit meaningful responses.
  • Notice the balance between your positive constructive versus negative destructive criticism is the response your team or organisation reports to you.
  • How do you react emotionally to a report who disagrees with you or brings you inconvenient news?
  • Notice what happens when you receive objective criticism with a simple “Thank you I will definitely consider what you say”.

Recommended Reading
Managing Corporate Communications in the Age of Restructuring, Crisis, and Litigation: Revisiting Groupthink in the Boardroom by David Silver.
Get your free mini-version of “Your Personal Leadership Book of Days – Avoid Cookie Cutter Solutions by Using Your Adaptive Intelligence


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Dr. Gary R Coulton is CEO of Adaptive Intelligence Consulting Limited
He empowers leaders to release their Adaptive Intelligence
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Stephanie Hilliard on April 22, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Good article. I currently have a benign subversive as my treasurer. You’ve reminded me that while I may not agree whole-heartedly with her take on our money usage, her opinions and cautions are valuable for giving us a counterbalancing viewpoint.

  2. Dr. Ed Hansen on April 22, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    On the whole, I agree with Dr. Coulton’s article. But, I would like to offer a caveat lector. “Benign” is a determination that should come after some investigation. When we identified a tumor in the body, we do not declare it “benign” until we have investigated it. We want to insure it is not doing more damage than we suspect. We owe it,then, to ourselves to observe and analyze our possible “Benign Subversives” to determine their intentionality. I speak from experience. I once immediately deemed someone a “Benign Subversive” and encouraged him in many of the ways referenced in Dr. Coulton’s article. I even held him out to other staff as an example of “involvement” and “passion”. Sadly, I learned that he was simply not a nice person; he resented any form of authority and his value system (integrity and morals) was inconsistent with that of the company. He did a lot of damage before I learned of his true character and his actions in the interest of a personal agenda to subvert authority. I and the company would have been better served to watch and listen before determining he was “benign”. Thanks, Dr. Ed

    • Gary R Coulton on May 2, 2014 at 7:55 am

      Hi Ed, I agree entirely. To be designated as benign requires evidence that the subversive is in fact not really a malignant saboteur in disguise. Just as is the case with a toxic leader this usually presents as range of destructive behaviours that clearly are not in line with what they claim to be their position.
      One of my core life values is “smart trust”. I trust people based on their behaviour. I can in some cases trust people who hold every opinion opposite to mine as long as they are authentic and honestly held. I may not like them but that is another story.
      Great leaders are in my opinion able to give space to people to prove themselves but are also strong enough remove people who prove to be malignant saboteurs for the greater good of everyone else.

  3. Katharine Halpin on April 22, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    Reblogged this on The Halpin Companies.

  4. Larry Walker on May 1, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Excellent article. When are you going to do the next one which guides leaders to learn to tap the talents of all their people. Many companies waste resources that would respond well to being encouraged to share what they know. Cheers.

    • Gary R Coulton on May 2, 2014 at 7:58 am

      Hi Larry, Many thanks. I am working on a post discussing postulating that one of the functions of a successful leader is simply to identify and remove any interferences which prevent followers from concentrating on their jobs.