the power of disruption

The Disruptive Leader

We think of disruption as the province of startups and scaleups but the ability to see markets differently and adopt new business models is vital for the success of all businesses. But is disruptive leadership the product of a certain personality type or is it an essential part of the toolbox for senior managers?” 

“What would Richard Branson do?”

It’s a question occasionally used as a thought experiment for entrepreneurs and business leaders. A disrupter long before the term became fashionable, Branson’s modus operandi was to look at a market – and that could be mobile phones, transatlantic air travel or even train services – and consider how things could be done differently, more efficiently and to the benefit of customers.

More recently, the term disrupter has tended to be associated closely not only with tech sector entrepreneurs but also with leaders of longer-established companies who are willing and eager to use digital transformation as a key to unlock disruption in their own sectors.

This moves the concept of disruption into a new phase. The disruptive leader of popular imagination is likely to be a maverick figure – someone like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or the aforementioned Branson – but in an increasingly competitive economy, all businesses must be prepared to do things differently in order to thrive in the face of changing markets. The truth is that disruption is closely linked to agility. Sometimes a visionary entrepreneur enters a market and effectively changes the rules. But very often seismic changes in a particular marketplace feed off one another. One business innovates and its rivals do more than follow suit. They introduce their own disruptive innovations. 

Similarly, circumstances change. When faced with disrupted supply chains or rising energy prices, businesses innovate.

We saw an example of this during the pandemic. Responding to lockdowns, companies had to find new ways of serving customers. New business models were developed as a result.

But that raises a question. What makes a disruptive leader? And is a capacity for disruption born out of something intrinsic – like personality – or can it be developed? Learned even?

What Makes a Disruptive Leader?

There is no identikit disruptive leader but there may be some common attributes. For instance, a recent report by Gartner identified a number of mindset traits.

According to Gartner, a typical disrupter will embrace uncertainty. For instance, he or she will explore the opportunities of digital transformation – itself a disruptive force – rather than simply carrying on business as before. Equally important, disrupters are prepared to experiment, innovate and iterate. As Mark Zuckerberg famously put it, this is the capacity to move fast, break things and perhaps move on.

A willingness to create an innovation culture within the organisation is another important trait, as is an investment in attracting and retaining digital talent. There is an end to all this, which is to achieve breakout performance.

That’s the Gartner view but there are other factors too perhaps. Depending on who you ask, a disruptive leader might be fearless, decisive, continually curious, or obsessed with creating better products.

You could argue that many of the above traits are present in all good leaders. But perhaps disruptors have one other quality. They are unlikely to accept the status quo. That’s what drives them to do things differently.

There are costs and risks associated with a disrupter’s mindset. To take an example, disruption can create a certain amount of instability. A Founders Circle report into 25 hyper-growth unicorns found that on average 25% of their staff left every year. A more normal figure would be 11%.

Not all leaders would be comfortable with that kind of churn, particularly those at the helm of well-established, incumbent companies. You could argue that startups and scaleups by their nature are prepared to take more risks to achieve stellar growth. For longer-established businesses, the equation is slightly different. The ability to try new things is key to long-term success. But motivating and retaining a skilled workforce is also key as is maintaining the confidence of shareholders. As a recent article in Forbes pointed out, managing talent is also key to success. It’s accepted that 90% of startups fail. In contrast, larger companies are expected to endure. So disruption and sustainability must go hand in hand.

Learning to Disrupt

The evidence suggests that organisations – public and private – are learning to square that circle.

Let’s return to the fallout from the pandemic. Research carried out by Verizon found companies that successfully came through the lockdown didn’t return to their pre-Covid working practices. Instead, they began to organise working life along a spectrum running from office work at one end to homework at the other, with hybrid working in the middle. Businesses set about finding the right balance for individuals and the workplace as a whole. This wasn’t “breaking things” in the accepted sense, it was creating something new.

All this suggests that disruption is not simply a playbook for a few mavericks. Quite the opposite. It has become part of the DNA of organisations.