Disruption and leadership might seem opposing forces. Here’s how the best leaders reconcile the two.
BY FAISAL HOQUE
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On its face, leadership’s goals don’t seem to line up with dictionary definitions of disruption. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s:
disrupt: (verb dis·rupt \dis-ˈrəpt\) to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way; to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something)
Surely leaders should do the reverse, providing a steady hand on the tiller and guiding their teams to consistent and predictable victories—right? That’s been the formula for organizational success for decades, at any rate. Not any more. For all the buzzworthiness of the term “disruption,” the fact is that the competitive pressure to innovate and shake up established markets is too powerful for companies—and the people who lead them—to disregard. And that’s having ramifications in the day-to-day experiences of most workplaces. If their leaders don’t shake organizations from their slumber from within, they’ll struggle to compete in the wider world.
THE DISRUPTIVE IMPERATIVE
Corporate graveyards are littered with examples of companies that woke up to smell the coffee a little too late—Blockbuster, Blackberry, and Kodak, to name but a few. That’s rarely ever the fault of employees; the impetus to think disruptively must come from the top. As an ad for Babson College’s MBA program noted back in 2011—before going on to be widely recited throughout the business world—some 40% of Fortune 500 companies in 2000 no longer existed by 2010. That rate of extinction hasn’t let up. Leaders have to be continuously ready to challenge everything that they’ve held dear. Still, disruptive leadership isn’t about change for the sake of change. It’s about integrating change into the modus operandi of the company—which, of course, is easier said than done. The truly disruptive leader doesn’t need to talk about disruption because it’s simply how they get things done. How? Here are five ways the most dynamic leaders embrace disruption and radiate it through their entire organizations. 1. THEY RELENTLESSLY PURSUE THE TRUTH Not telling others what you can see with your own eyes is the first step towards an early grave. When the business environment shifts and the accustomed approaches stop working, the last thing any business needs is a leader who suggests everyone keep calm and carry on.
DISRUPTIVE LEADERS EMPATHIZE WITH THEIR TEAMS AND INVOLVE THEM IN THEIR THINKING.
Disruptive leaders are always testing to make sure their companies’ strategies are still effective—and say so when they aren’t. The more rapidly changes take place, the more crucial it becomes for leaders to take all their employees with them on the journey. The truth sometimes hurts, but it’s often the shock of that truth that prods people into taking actions and making decisions they might not have contemplated otherwise. 2. THEY GUIDE OTHERS THROUGH CHAOS Leaders need to be comfortable with the reality that in the face of change, the future is often hazy. Then they need others to be equally comfortable with that. As a company enters uncharted waters, it can be daunting for everyone involved. This is where the old “steady hand on the tiller” idea of leadership still has some force—not to guide an organization along a familiar course during difficult times, but to keep the ship steady as it steers in a new direction. A big piece of that is communication. Leaders need to cut through the press-release palaver about “exciting new opportunities” and explain in concrete, practical terms how the changes under way tie into the business’s objectives: What new moves is the company making, and how come? Disruptive leaders empathize with their teams and involve them in their thinking. Chaos with a final destination is somehow a little less chaotic, even if you can’t map out in advance every move that will take you there. 3. THEY’RE DECISIVE The guiding principle of a disruptive leader is decisiveness. Leading by consensus has its place in the business world, but you can’t focus-group your way to an effective new playbook when the landscape changes abruptly. Even if some decisions involves the most basic of “gut feels,” disruptive leaders need to tell their teams precisely what they want, when, and why—then help them to make it happen. Waiting too long to weigh countervailing opinions can spell doom. 4. THEY BREAK THE RULES AND WRITE NEW ONES—BUT ALWAYS EXPLAIN WHY The word “normal” doesn’t exist in a disruptive leader’s vocabulary—once something has become normal, it’s probably obsolete. The market is constantly changing, and the aim is always to be at its forefront rather than floundering in its wake. Sometimes that means breaking the rules; indeed, disruptive leaders nurture a healthy skepticism of best practices.
IF EMPLOYEES DON’T KNOW THE CURRENT RULES OF THE GAME, THE ORGANIZATION CAN’T PLAY BY THEM AS A TEAM.
Still, a willingness to break the rules isn’t the same as cheering lawlessness. Embracing disruption means there’s always a new normal, and for as long as it lasts, it’s up to leaders to communicate what it is. If employees don’t know the current rules of the game, the organization can’t play by them as a team. 5. THEY THRIVE ON UNCERTAINTY Leading disruptive innovation means getting used to incredible levels of uncertainty. You never know how something will work until you try it. Modifying your assumptions and adapting your plans depending on your results is the standard practice of the most effective disruptive leaders. But while such leaders might be called visionaries, they don’t have a crystal ball. There’s a certain method to the mayhem of navigating continuous changes, and disruptive leaders know that the key to success lies in using the insights from experimenting in order to chart a new direction. Innovate and iterate. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand what’s happened the first time your organization tries something new. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll be better informed the second time. And who knows? By then things might have changed all over again. Copyright © 2015 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved. [Photo: Flickr user Hoffnungsschimmer] Originally published @FastCompany.