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Is disruption making businesses reassess their leadership capabilities?

by Kate Scammell-Anderson on 05 Sep 2016

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In a global and digital society where change is the norm, disruption is a constant. A range of forces combine to place great pressure on organisations and, regardless of their industry, business leaders need to ensure that they are well-equipped to deal with this reality.

In the introduction to the publication, "Boards in challenging times: extraordinary disruptions"[1], Malcolm McKenzie writes: "These challenges are unique rather than routine, involve multiple internal and external stakeholders, are triggered by major internal or external events and have no obvious solution. […] Many boards are arguably not currently equipped to deal with major or extraordinary disruptions and discontinuities and are often found to be unaligned with their management team and not effective in addressing the most pressing issues."

Whatever their focus - be it company turnaround, business transformation or a change in leadership – organisations want to achieve competitive advantage. So is disruption making businesses reassess their leadership capabilities? And if so, how? 

The importance of flexibility 

Often, the present make-up of a company board is not conducive to change. For instance, the Alvarez & Marsal publication found that the "CEO Superman" - that is, the all-knowing, all-doing superhero of the C-suite - is in decline. Instead, today, leaders need to be "collaborative and contextually intelligent". As they come up against previously unencountered situations, it's vital that leaders are able to find a way forward – flexibility is key.

In research published in Harvard Business Review (HBR), Sunnie Giles finds that having the flexibility to change opinions is among the 10 most important leadership competencies, according to leaders around the world. She writes: "Admitting we’re wrong isn't easy. […] To encourage learning among employees, leaders must first ensure that they are open to learning (and changing course) themselves."

And an important partner to this flexibility is the willingness among leaders to recognise the gaps in their own expertise; the areas in which they might require outside help. This is not to find fault with the capabilities of successful business leaders – but simply to understand that, as more and more organisations find themselves in uncharted territory, they may require input from someone more familiar with the terrain.

In this capricious landscape, there are no guarantees and the usual way of doing things may no longer bear fruit. Therefore, it is necessary to innovate, in order to grow and evolve as an organisation.

Becoming a self-disruptor

Writing for Fortune, Geoff Colvin explains how the best business leaders disrupt themselves - continuously. He writes: "Self-­disruption isn't something you do just once. Every successful disrupter becomes an incumbent in its transformed industry."  In other words, what's new soon become normal – and so businesses need to constantly reassess their leadership capabilities, in order to stay at the top of their game.  

Becoming a self-disruptor isn't necessarily easy. In "The Self-Disruptor’s Manifesto", Jay Samit compares the procedure with major surgery. He writes: "Most people avoid this painful process because they are not willing to risk what they have built for the opportunity to have something better." By contrast: "The great disruptors constantly reinvent themselves and their careers. They never fear losing their jobs because they create jobs. They control their own destinies."

That is not to say that business leaders can't stay in their current roles, but they require the courage to shake up the status quo; to try something new; to question what's always been. Standing still is simply not an option – even if the road ahead is likely to be a rocky one, leading to an unknown destination.

Disruption can't be quantified. Nevertheless, it is an unstoppable force in today's business world. Coming in many forms – from Brexit, to current digital realities, and Industry 4.0 - it has the power to rip the carpet from beneath an organisation's feet. But it also presents fantastic opportunities for companies to achieve remarkable things.  

To deal with disruption successfully, businesses are having to reassess their leadership capabilities. Today, the best leaders are those who are flexible and willing to learn new approaches. The best leaders are those who dare to themselves be a force of disruption in a world in flux.

[1] "Boards in challenging times: extraordinary disruptions", Alvarez & Marsal and Henley Business School

Dealing with disruption

Topics: Leadership, business disruption