2016 was a poor year for oddsmakers.

They said Brexit would never pass, the Cubs would never win, and Trump would never become president.  0 for 3. 

Common wisdom favors steady trajectories, institutional power over individual memes, and systemic inertia over rebellions.

In 2016 the Rebels became the victors.  [And the Cubs won!]

The Rebel archetype is woven deeply into the DNA of the American experience.  The first settlers were motivated by Puritan rebellion against European institutions.  American Independence was gained in rebellion to Great Britain.  The Civil War was a rebellion from within.

We like that feeling of the little guy sticking it ‘to the man’.

The Rebel is a powerful, forceful image that we celebrate.  Deeper within (and ironically, I suppose), the Rebel is actually fueled by a profound feeling of powerlessness.  When individuals aggregate this feeling into a group, this feeling of powerlessness undergirds populism… and the little guys band together to stick it to the institutional powers above.  [See also, Dumbfuckistan vs. The Pointy-Heads and Fear in Ordinary America.]

Populism was the dominant strain in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  Both Bernie and Trump tapped into the underlying insecurities of the populace that the Establishment was taking more than their fair share and leaving ordinary, hard-working Americans with less than they deserved.

Populism also fueled the U.K. Midlands’ desire to leave the EU in earlier 2016 voting, and is anticipated to dominate the tone (and potentially the outcome) of upcoming elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands in 2017.

Now comes the hard part:  Maturing this energy from the Rebel outsider to the wizened leader.

The Stories We Tell

Humans tell stories about what they are seeing, feeling, experiencing.  These stories reveal the underlying perceptions, biases, worldviews and values of the storytellers.  Stories are creations designed to affect how we interrelate and communicate.  Stories are used to influence logic, emotion and response.    

Great storytellers move masses by tapping into the right imagery, emotions and language that stir us to embrace ideas and action.  Lincoln held a fragile nation together with thoughtful words.  Kennedy told a fearful nation immersed in a Cold War that its greatest aspiration was actually in space.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, eloquence helped us visualize the road to greater equality.  Reagan renewed a sense of pride in being an American. 

Today’s storytellers cast themselves as Rebels, battling gallantly through dark days fraught with enemies both within and without.  They shape a narrative which fires the spirit of individuals headed to battle, vivid in its imagery, rich in its language, piquing emotion and passion.  The Rebel storytellers build a groundswell of support for their battles, but also leave deep divisions in the populace by seeding a ‘with us or against us’ mindset.

In the ancient craft of storytelling, as decoded by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the Rebel is an archetype on a hero’s journey.  That Rebel’s journey involves not only motivating his people to bind together in battle against the Establishment.  It also involves a subsequent evolutionary step whereby the Rebel becomes a Hero.   In this journey, the internal architecture of the Rebel leader is transmuted, and he emerges from the quest no longer merely the Brazen but now the Wizened.  The Rebel becomes King. 

This transformation is a quantum leap.  Some Rebels become true leaders.  Others, fail.

To emerge transformed, the Rebel must recast their worldview, approach and language to imbue a new, elevated state of responsibility.  The feeling of powerlessness that was the motivating power to take action as a Rebel is subsumed by a new imprint focused on honorably and legitimately exercising power won.  

As part of this transformation, the language, images and emotions evoked by the Rebel necessarily shift, from the cries to undertake the sacrifice which will inevitably be suffered in prosecuting a rebellion, to a King’s calm resolve and a noble aspiration for his people. 

This is a difficult journey for the Rebel leader to make, complicated by supporters who have grown accustomed to the familiarity of the deeply evocative, passionate and divisive cries of the rebellion movement.  

But it is a necessary one.

As the United States and United Kingdom work through this period of populism, where the ‘little guys’ have won the vote to set a new course for their respective nations, look for indicators of transformation by those at the tip of the spear of the Rebel movement to become truly historical leaders. 

Admittedly, in the piqued emotion of today’s fiercely divisive debates where there will be very real winners and very real losers, it is difficult to acknowledge that we may be but mere actors within the larger arc of an ancient storyline. 

Yet, it is true.  My hope is that with this knowledge of the larger arc at hand, it is also possible that we are better able to see, understand and respond to the narratives being crafted by those storytellers dominating the front pages around the world.

In other words, with this knowledge, is it possible to understand if our present cohort of Rebels is successfully transforming into legitimate leaders? 

Look for the following indicators as part of this inquiry:   

Expanding Bases of Support

Rebellions are built on division.  When the battle is won, the gifted leader then finds ways to bridge differences in order to build coalitions that represent the plurality.  Coalitions are built by articulating shared values across diverse communities (Reagan), by shrewd deal-making (LBJ), and by overt signs of sharing the wealth across broader communities (FDR).

Stringing Together Wins

Winning a single battle (e.g., an election) is only a first step in the journey to becoming a legitimate leader.  Leaders emerge when they are able to develop a sustained series of wins, which thereby engenders even broader bases of support. 

Healing Division

The American experience is also defined by weathering periods of extreme darkness followed by healing and growth.  Rebellion gives way to rebuilding, reinvention and rebirth.  Swords are beaten into plowshares.  Great leaders become catalysts for healing, empowering those who gave to now grow.  The Rebel leader emerges to assume the role of healer, with the calm tenderness of father or a mother nurturing a hurt child. 

Sifting Through the Language, Imagery and Emotions

As America and Europe find their way through this current period of public discourse – characterized by new power structures, uncertain rules for determining a collective future, and divisive rhetoric – look for evolution in the tone and tenor of leaders which demonstrate their growth and transformation. 

This process of inquiry is hard, as the triggers and landmines are overtly and subtly woven into stories told in order to evoke support from passionate tribes and their opponents.  It is made even harder knowing that many will suffer during the battle. 

Reading the Odds

The oddsmakers are closely watching the current crop of empowered Rebels in the U.S. and U.K., and those which may yet emerge in Germany, France and the Netherlands later this year. 

At this early stage, it is a tough read.  Look for movement in the leading indicators that the Rebels are transforming into true leaders over the next 90 days. 

Place your bets then.


Ironheart Corporate Advisory helps its clients to navigate through uncertain waters, with a focus on creating and protecting long-term enterprise value.