It is about time you protect your Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick


Didier Marlier

February 02, 2018

From Disruption to Engagement

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The battle between Good and Bad, Loyalty and Toadying, Progress and Immobility, Past and Future, Courage and Conformism has accompanied Mankind since its beginning. And always, prior to Victory, courageous whistle blowers and change agents have paid, with their lives sometimes, and more often, with their jobs, with lawsuits, with humiliation, their determination to help their Nation, Organization or Tribe to progress. In France, like many European countries, there had even been a sort of attempt to protect such people in the Middle Age, under the nick name of “Fous du Roi” (King’s Fool). And we all know that the job was also one of the riskiest on Earth, as many “Fools”, working for egocentric or weak Kings, paid the high price for their courage (or lack of diplomacy).

The famous Dr Meredith Belbin (author of the useful psychometric on team roles which bears his name) called “Plants” those people who were natural “out of the box thinkers” and were provocatively challenging the status quo. He called them plants because his research showed that the rest of the group would often try to silence them, trivialize, mock or aggress them, in order for them to get back into the ranks and stop challenging the existing orthodoxies. So Belbin called plants (he meant “seeds”) as they need been nurtured, protected and supported. Interestingly enough, their name evolved towards “Innovators” as Belbin realized that such people were also the most innovative in their respective organizations.

During my days as an MBA student in IMD, our O.B. Professor, Chris Parker, used to mention a study done at Bell Labs and subtitled “The Paradox of Friendship”. Bell Labs had discovered that the creativity and performance of Project Teams were significantly dropping after 12 to 16 months together due to the fact that members now knew each other and mastered avoidance mechanisms to avoid all sorts of conflicts. They were “settling down for mediocrity” as happens in so many organizations. The authors of the study recommended that leaders introduced an “agent provocateur” who would prevent this collusion to take place. But their recommendation was also adamant that those people absolutely needed to be protected by the top leaders if they were to do the job.

We all know what tends to happen to whistleblowers… For a few courageous ones who make it to the front page of TIME magazine as person of the Year (in 2002), how many have lost their jobs, reputation, home, wife or husband? Think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico 1968 or more recently Colin Kaepernick, the protester of the NFL who never found a job back.

And it is now your time to take a stand in regard to your Tommie Smith, your John Carlos and your Colin Kaepernick! Too often those people are blocked by mediocre apparatchiks whose life seems dedicated to maintain the status quo, pretend obedience to the CEO when he talks change and starts igniting counter fires all over their departments to annihilate the much needed changes.

Too often do I run seminars and welcome the whistleblowers at the end, asking me: “Does the CEO really support what you advocate?”: I am always in a surprise since we have the CEO’s blessing. And I then hear the stories of mediocrity, politics, games being played by their “nomenklatura” seeking to eliminate them, but of course in a manner as secretive and unspectacular as possible.

A recent story by one such “uncelebrated hero” (today they like to call themselves “corporate hacker”) in France, during his pathetically poor “yearly appraisal” (yes there are organizations still running that medieval tool) really got me to stand up and plead their defense.

It is our job, as leaders, to identify, support, sometimes protect, nurture (they can sometimes be unpolished diamonds) and develop our Corporate Hackers, otherwise “the system and its administrative worms” will eliminate them and we will sadly see our transformational efforts being severely hampered.

As a tribute to such people, and to your efforts to truly and courageously transform your organizations, here is the wonderful PDF that one of such corporate hackers sent me recently. I find it really excellent as a way to challenge our orthodoxies about Transformation! Enjoy watching it. It is short and I fully subscribe to it.



  1. Gerson Oliveira

    To the organization, in genral, the “Common Sense Syndrome” is a comfort and a danger at the same time.
    Be provocative has its price… but is very exciting !!!!

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts dear Gerson… This is my whole point, why can’t we make this exciting exercise simpler and less threatening for the courageous few who take it on? Have a great week


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