Disruptive Leadership

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One of the main responsibilities of leadership is creating change. It is not enough to respond to a changing environment (although, that is important, too). The most effective leaders actually create change in the organization and may even influence the environment as a result. One of the best contemporary examples of this is Steve Jobs’ ability to change Apple upon his 1996 return to the company and the resulting impact he and the company had on global culture.

Borrowing ideas from the field of disruptive innovation, I have points below that describe disruptive leadership. (Thanks to Manish Shah and his article “Principles of Disruptive Innovation”. [Update June 11, 2017: Link removed because the article is no longer available online.])

Look At Problems And Your Organization In New Ways

Too often we can’t find solutions to problems because we haven’t done anything to change how we perceive or define the problem. Disruptive leadership reframes problems and opportunities from different perspectives. Reframing might be as simple as obtaining the perspective of other people (especially those who know nothing about the issue) or as creative as redefining the problem from an entirely different discipline. For example, how would a master gardener tackle the problem of restructuring your organization?

Look For Problems That Others Have Labeled Unsolvable

There are many characters in history that effectively illustrate this point. Thomas Edison tried thousands of ways to create a practical light bulb. Fred Smith proved that a centralized distribution model for overnight shipping was feasible (FedEx). Wilbur and Orville Wright corrected many centuries of belief about heavier-than-air flying vehicles. Disruptive leadership sets aside beliefs about what is possible and is willing to take great risks.

Focus On Direct And Simple Solutions

It is very easy to complicate matters, especially when doing something new. (See my recent article “How Leaders Complicate Matters.”) Elaborate programs and resources often create top-heavy solutions that undermine the effectiveness of your idea. Very often all you need is a simple plan that others can latch onto quickly. This helps create much-needed momentum. Disruptive leadership leverages the impact that a grassroots effort can quickly make on the organization.

Accept Failure In The Beginning

Avoid the temptation to develop the perfect approach the first time. In fact, a lot can be learned from implementing an “80% solution” on a small scale (as long as people understand it is not intended to be the final plan). It is not unusual for what you thought would be weak to instead work rather well in the real world (and for what you thought would be strong to work horribly). Disruptive leadership embraces the ambiguity of “unfinished-ness” and accepts that what works best is never built in the lab.

Be Patient For Organizational Change But Impatient For Meaningful Impact

Change is slow. Cultural change is slower. Impact, though, should be quick. A disruptive leader understands the difference between change and impact. Impact is merely an effect—it is external. It is how something looks or feels. Change, though, is internal and comes with shifts in values, beliefs, and attitudes. Disruption should have a quick and meaningful impact, but it will not produce change for quite some time.

If you have not created any “waves” lately, you are probably not engaged in creating change. Try out being a disruptive leader by using the strategies above.

Congratulations to my colleagues, Greg and Robert. This is our 200th blog post! Thank you to all our wonderful readers. You are why we do this.


Photo by Paul Schubert. Available at morgueFile.com.

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