Not the caricatured anarchists of a by-gone era, nor individuals who assume the role of the little boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Not even seasoned journalists asking tough questions, nor constituencies that demonstrate genuine backlash.
Instead, I’m talking about people both you and I have seen, heard, and maybe know; those individuals who exist in every organization and community: in our classrooms, boardrooms, and in our local, state and national politics.
The bomb throwers (call them contrarians or shit disturbers if you prefer), the ones who wait, primed for those in authority to say or do something even slightly controversial, and then pounce on them, pointing out flaws, real or imagined, when given the slightest opportunity.
These are also the trolls on the internet, spinning conspiracy theories, who constantly attack people.
“It won’t work,” “It never worked,” “The idea is silly,” or “You dropped the ball,” are the frequent lamentations of these fault finders. They often perform for an echo chamber of cheers.
Yesterday they argued for one position. Today they argue against themselves. It doesn’t matter. They are self-appointed, and their job is to confront, provoke, and maybe even humiliate leaders and managers.
Some of us may consider them to be brave members of our society that is typically passive or apathetic. We may be lulled into thinking that they are speaking truth to power, leading a resistance or counter movement with a better plan, but they seldom are.
I’m not saying that no one can criticize, nor am I dumping on people who have legitimate grievances and advance thoughtful counterarguments. Instead I have difficulties with people who only try to cause controversy and do so hypocritically.
But here is the thing about bomb throwers. When it comes time for them to manage or to lead, well they do a pretty shitty job.
Take for example our outgoing President. Every chance he gets, even before he assumed the office of POTUS, Donald J. Trump took the opportunity to bad mouth public figures who were not suitably fawning. This behavior in not simply reserved for his political opponents, but this treatment is also doled out to those he hand-picked to be part of his administration, who have ended up failing to support his policies. He performs for a cult-like army of followers, the core of whom believe he “tells is like it is.” They continue to support him, even as the masque falls away and the emperor is revealed to have no clothes.
Trump is not alone. There are numerous public figures, like many of the pundits (e.g., Lou Dobbs) who host shows on Fox News, or talk radio hosts (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) who appear to spend a disproportionate amount of their public career constantly complaining about the policies and plans of others, questioning their credibility, and offering nothing concrete at all to address the problem.
But instead of completely dismissing the bomb throwers and shit disturbers, to a certain extent we actually need these types of people.
Adversity and opposition keeps leaders on their toes. It prevents them from becoming complacent.
But, if you are in a leadership or management position, my advice to you is not to ignore the bomb throwers, but to dance with them. Acknowledge them, ask them to explain the data and rationale upon which they base their claims, and if warranted, publicly dismiss the absurdity or falseness of them. Point to the work you (and your organization) are doing to address the challenges. If the question is deserving of further study, suggest that they assemble a committee to examine the problem they raise, write a white or position paper for discussion, and offer to assist them in this endeavor. The sad truth is that it won’t happen. They are likely to respond with, “just saying.”
This kind of approach is not easy, but it is the mark of a good leader and manager to do so.