Rebels versus Guardians: a case study in misunderstandings

The story of Andrei Doroshin, a 22 year old who successfully led the testing and vaccination of thousands of Philly residents before getting fired, caught my eye in the news feed. Since writing this post, I’ve learned that this is quite a controversial topic and that Andrei is widely seen as guilty in the court of public opinion. I don’t know the details or the truth of his guilt or innocence… but I do want to use Andrei to highlight how brain wiring can lead to tragic outcomes and deep misunderstandings.

It seems evident from these write-ups that Andrei is a prototypical Rebel with a Cause — my term for gifted adults. And this story isn’t new or unusual: it’s played out in traditional organizations and political arenas around the world on a daily basis.

His story could be my story, and also perhaps yours, dear misunderstood Rebel. It’s also yours, you Guardians who work hard to keep the system relatively safe, predictable and efficient within this rapidly changing world. To you, Rebels are often threats not to be trusted.

The point of this article is not about actual guilt or innocence, or who’s right or wrong. It’s about the necessity of understanding and harmonizing opposite ways of moving through the world to bring out the best of both.

What makes Andrei a Rebel?

Diverse interests — He’s a leader in three different businesses: a real estate firm, a biotech company, and an organization called Philly Fighting COVID (CEO), the group who was tapped to run Philadelphia’s first mass vaccination clinic.

Fast thinker and mover — Andrei first gathered a group of friends to manufacture face shields with a 3D printer and donate them to local hospitals. The model then morphed into a pop-up COVID testing center before pivoting to vaccines.

Status quo buster — Hailed as an “operational savant,” Andrei led the team who administered over 7,000 shots (8% of the first dose count) in rapid time.

“We took the entire model and just threw it out the window,” Doroshin said during a segment on the Today show earlier this month, explaining what he saw as his clinic’s two big innovations: getting rid of paper registrations and creating a vaccine assembly line to speed up the shot-giving process. “We think a little differently than people in health care do.”

“Who Exactly is Philly Fighting COVID?” Philly Mag

Fairness fighter —  In interviews, Andrei revealed the justice gene that’s prevalent in gifted adults. “We just vaccinated 2,000 more people this weekend. We only care about vaccinating people.” And when confronted about his lack of experience, he commented, “Our expertise is we’re just trying to help.”

What’s all the fuss?

Governments and large businesses are notoriously populated by Guardians who are charged with keeping the mechanics of the system functioning in a safe and reliable way. From a Guardian’s standpoint, Rebels like Andrei are often viewed with resentment and mistrust. Why?

Rebels don’t stay in their lanes. In the case of Philly Fighting COVID, this group of 20-somethings had virtually zero health background that would appear credible to a Guardian. Rebels easily drift across traditional boundaries, successfully cross-pollinating ideas that work in one setting into totally different environments.

Rebels are obsessed with the work itself, often at the expense of rules or relationships. Philadelphia’s department of health claimed that Andrei turned the company into a for-profit entity “behind its back” and that they changed the data privacy policy on its vaccine interest form, which would enable it to sell the data to third parties.

“For Philly Fighting COVID to have made these changes without discussion with the city is extremely troubling,” a statement read. “As a result of these concerns, along with Philly Fighting COVID’s unexpected stoppage of testing operations, the health department has decided to stop providing vaccine to Philly Fighting COVID.”

“Who Exactly is Philly Fighting COVID?” Philly Mag

Let’s peel away the layers of accusations (which I can’t comment on) to focus on a couple key phrases here: “Made these changes without discussion with the city” and making decisions “behind its back.” Now, I know the optics look bad, but bear with me here…

From what I know about gifted adults with a strong fairness gene (and especially if they have shades of Asperger’s, which can show up as benign cluelessness), I might give Andrei the benefit of the doubt. Actual guilt or innocence aside, I’m convinced that he’s also on trial for simply being a Rebel — moving fast, making decisions on the fly based on what’s needed in the moment, and failing to slow down to ensure he’s checking all the boxes and bringing people along.

God knows I’ve been guilty of this at many points in my career, and have been punished for it. I’ve had people make incorrect assumptions about my intentions based on behavior that was interpreted through a neurotypical lens. One company value from my last employer that I most appreciated: “assume positive intent.”

Despite our fairness gene, we can also completely miss opportunities to pull in oft-overlooked minority collaborators. Andrei failed to connect with Ala Stanford, an experienced physician who founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and had been performing tests in Philadelphia’s black communities for months. I’m not saying this is OK by any means; I simply know from my own personal “benign cluelessness” — flying too fast while focused on only on the work — that I’m reluctant to assign a guilty verdict to Andrei’s motive without deeper understanding.

Rebels can be sloppy. We’re usually not good at managing details. Our errors aren’t usually intentional; we simply let what we deem “small stuff” drop through the cracks as we’re chasing the bigger objectives. But small stuff to Rebels are actually quite significant to Guardians, and our apparent carelessness can erode credibility and trust.

“Philly Fighting COVID has submitted three separate invoices that were rejected due to incomplete documentation and duplicative time sheets…. We will only pay out for legitimate costs incurred by the provider.”

Jim Garrow, Philadelphia health department spokesperson

Rebels can be blindsided by lack of trust.

We’re moving forward, flowing and playing in the open space of possibility, experimenting what what generates the best outcomes, and loving this work, this dance — and if you’re not a Rebel, believe me when I say this is one of the highest, purest forms of enjoyment possible for us — when BAM: we’re hammered with accusations about how we’ve screwed up.

“I don’t understand why people are freaking out about this kind of stuff… We just vaccinated 2,000 more people this weekend. We only care about vaccinating people.”

Andrei Doroshin

Suddenly our joyful, purposeful play is reframed as failure: failing to respect the rules, failing to keep someone in the loop, failing to stay in our lanes, failing to have the right credentials, failing to create the intended outcome because we moved too fast and didn’t bring people along.

This lack of trust and the resulting feelings of failure take their toll.

After a number of these encounters we might “learn our lesson:” to stuff ourselves into a box and apply the mask, diligently and fearfully, trying to conform into a Guardian system that can’t understand or appreciate us for what we bring to the party. It can create intense feelings of depression and self-rejection until we learn to love our unique wiring despite the world’s messages to the contrary.

Guardians feel misunderstood as well.

This story helped me understand and value the role of the Guardian. I imagine that the pleasure that Rebels take in “dancing in the possibility space” is the same emotion that Guardians feel when constructing and working within systems designed for safety and predictability.

When Andrei celebrated throwing the old model out the window, he essentially trashed the work of countless Guardians who worked to iteratively refine a model that had a long track record; it was proven and safe. And given his lack of healthcare experience, he didn’t have the credibility to challenge the system. Andrei essentially slapped these Guardians in the face, and they slapped him in return.

What’s the solution?

I prefer to Start with WHO, not Why. First and foremost, we need to understand ourselves and each other.

Throughout my years of research into human motivation, emotion is the biggest predictor of behavior. And not just any emotion: the most impactful levers are the emotions connected to our 12 core needs like Security, Freedom, or Belonging. I feel safe, free, connected, impactful, seen, etc. — these feelings are how we know our needs are met.

Each human being has a unique set of “motivational DNA:” the handful of core needs and emotions that uniquely define how we see the world and make decisions. Rebels are primarily motivated by Autonomy (“don’t box me in!), and Guardians by Security. This tension between Autonomy and Security is at the root of countless battles, not least of which is the current political environment in the US and Britain.

Thing is, we need both. Rebels continually push the system to improve; Guardians ensure that change can be made in the safest, most reliable way. Is it even possible for them to meet in the middle?

Rebel and Guardian are just two of 33 Archetypes that I use in my work. Other Archetypes like Mediator or Unifier can play a critical role in creating the conditions for collaboration that celebrate both paths and navigate the third way forward. This third role is essential; too many Rebels simply don’t have the patience or social skills required for this human-centric integration. We’re usually off working on the next possibility that’s captured our interest.

What about you?

Where do you fall on the Rebel/Guardian spectrum? I’d love to hear stories about what’s worked within your organizations to bridge this gap.

PS. Read the full article in Philly Magazine and let me know what you think about my assessment.

PPS. If your organization is facing cultural friction in the face of change, let’s talk about how Starting with WHO — along with my Inner Compass process — can help you find common ground.

2 thoughts on “Rebels versus Guardians: a case study in misunderstandings

  1. Beautifully articulated Jen. I’m a rebel through and through who embraces diversity of thought. I’ve been thinking about this recently and realize we rebels need Guardians as a safety net and VoR to protect ourselves and others from ideas that may be too risky.

Leave a Reply