The Risks of Disrupted Leadership

There is inherent risk in deciding to be a change agent. Just like the old saying that history is written by the victors, this narrative about being a change agent is written by people who have, for the most part, succeeded in their changes.

If you listen to lectures or talks within the business world, one of the trends at the moment is being disruptive.  The idea of being willing to shake up the status quo and try new things in order to increase performance and get results has been elevated to the point of almost hero-worship.  You don’t need to look much farther than Silicon Valley to see the worship of the Disruptive Leadership cult: While the term disruptive used to be negative, it is now proudly brandished and included as part of mottos and business pitches as a benefit.  Steve Jobs is frequently cited as an example of this style: by all accounts he didn’t play nice in the workplace.  But the ideas that he had were so revolutionary that the sins of his kind of harsh leadership are forgiven.

Last week I was listening to a TED Radio Hour podcast put together by NPR’s Guy Raz which was dedicated to this topic.  Disruptive Leadership focused on interviews and TED Talks by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Sheryl Sandberg, Bunker Roy, Drew Dudley and Seth Godin on not only the benefits of being a disruptive leader, but also the ability for anyone, regardless of whether they are a leader by title, can shake up the system to produce better results.  One quote from the final section of the podcast between Guy Raz and Seth Godin stood out to me (emphasis mine):

Guy Raz:  I am interested in this idea of disruption, because if you read a business magazine or hear a lecture from a business school they all talk about being disruptive. And yet a lot of places don’t want disruption, they don’t want people to come in and lead it to an uncertain place. It’s scary.

Seth Godin: I think it’s fair to say almost no one wants disruption. I think that what almost everyone does want is something better, and the art of disruption then is being able to figure out what is the likely path to get you from here to that better place with the least amount of appropriate fallout.

That conversation stands out to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because it points to a fundamental truth about the risks in disruption: it doesn’t always work.  Seth points out in the TED Talk that was profiled for the show that characteristics of being a successful disruptive leader, like charisma, are applied retroactively.  Bill Gates, he points out, is kind of an awkward guy that no one would argue has much in in the way of charisma if you knew him back in the 1970’s.  But because of his success, and because of his legacy, he was later given this characteristic.  Seth uses this as an example that anyone can be a disruptive leader or change agent, even if you don’t think you have the correct personality or qualities.  You simply have to decide to do it.

But of course there is inherent risk in deciding to be a change agent.  Just like the old saying that history is written by the victors, this narrative about being a disruptive leader is written by people who have, for the most part, succeeded in their changes.  You rarely hear about those who tried and failed.  Even if you aren’t a leader in title, attempting to make small changes can result in big problems for you down the road depending on the culture of your workplace.

I consider myself a bit of a change agent.  I firmly believe that you can’t solve the problems you are facing if you are using the same thinking that created them.  Shaking things up and bringing new ideas into the mix is necessary to prevent stagnation, which can be deadly for any business in the long term.  After all, in any industry if you are merely keeping up then you are falling behind.  This, of course, often means taking on the sacred cows of the business, and challenging the “But we’ve always done it this way” response that you often get when you propose new ideas or new ways of doing things. But I have found that by using communication (especially starting conversations in place where there previously were none) and by asking questions (Why? is a great one), even a person in a non-leadership role can spark change and thus be a disruptive force.

But it is also important to keep Guy Raz’s question in mind: Many places don’t actually want change.  They say they do, with all of the slick ads, PR, HR cheer-leading and C-Suite statements that they can produce.  But once you actually try, that’s when you find out that it was simply lip service to a buzzword that someone likely read on the internet or heard at a conference somewhere.  Sometimes it comes down to specific personalities who are threatened by change you are trying to produce, or are threatened by you for proposing the change.  Sometimes it comes down to indifference or even outright blindness to the need for the change in the workplace at all.  Sometimes it comes down even to location; a business in Silicon Valley may be far more open to change than a business in a place like Kansas.  But in any case, it’s a reflection of the culture both of the business and the surrounding community.

For change agents who find themselves in a workplace that is closed off to change, it is a demoralizing experience which is made even worse by the fact that change agents are often the first to recognize the need for change.  It is like being  a superhero who only has the power of seeing into the future and can see that a flood is going to come and destroy the city in 24 hours, but there is nothing that can be done about it.  If you try, you often make enemies who are threatened by the changes you are trying to make, and depending on who those enemies are it can make your workplace even worse.  Change agents in this situation are forced to ask themselves hard questions about whether fighting for change is worth the risk.  In this situation, any change agent or disruptive leader needs to clearly evaluate whether the potential reward is worth the risk and to act accordingly to what they decide.  It’s uncomfortable and can be scary, because sometimes the conclusion it draws you to is definitely not a desirable outcome. But this kind of evaluation is necessary.

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