Leadership in a Disruptive World: Four Practices that Established Leaders Must Learn from the High-T

My experience as a university instructor of management and as a leadership and management consultant has led me to two beliefs about leaders and leadership today. First, the increasingly complex nature of leadership and the corresponding struggle involved in navigating this complexity place tremendous pressures on a leader’s confidence and self-efficacy. This challenge to self-efficacy results when leaders sense they lack the expertise and knowledge required to thrive in this complexity. Second, this complexity is felt within organizations resulting in high levels of emotional reactivity which emerge as expectations placed upon leaders to consistently execute flawlessly (Friedman, 2007). The accelerated use of technology, social media platforms that produce immediate transparency and instant global communities, along with economic, social, and political uncertainties can all converge to generate a tsunami of fear-producing paralysis that can constrain the creative capacity of even the best leaders. Feeling locked-down by their fear, leaders may find themselves unable to move forward into and through this cauldron of uncertainty and anxiety. Clearly, Goldsmith and Reiter’s (2007) advice would be an apt and timely description of this leadership conundrum, “What Got You Here Won't Get You There.” These crises in leadership courage are more acutely noted by Kellerman (2012) who observed that, “humankind…is suffering from a crisis of confidence in those who are charged with leading wisely and well, and from a surfeit of mostly well-intentioned but finally false promises made by those supposed to make things better” (p. xiv).

Many of our leaders keep a stranglehold on the way they have always practiced leadership even though this grasping has become like a milestone tied around their necks (Friedman, 2007). They hope upon hope that what they know and how they lead will be enough to move their organizations forward despite their fear, concern, and their awareness of disruptions in, around, and beyond their organizations. These leaders have most likely miscalculated and, as a result, organizations and the people in them become increasingly frustrated and disillusioned. Bazerman (2014) identifies this tendency as “implicit bias” and it results when leaders “discount facts that contradict the conclusions [they] want to reach and…uncritically accept evidence that supports [their] positions. Unaware of [their] skewed information processing, [they] erroneously conclude that [their] judgments are free of bias” (p. 53).

Leaders have no choice but to learn to lean into these headwinds of disruption. There is no room for retreating or circling the wagons thinking that the best offense is a good defense. Johansen (2012) beautifully described how leaders must learn to thrive in what he called the “VUCA” world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). When leaders choose to resist the urgency for an agile approach to learning that leads to informed action and when they ignore their ever-shrinking portfolio of relevant skills and tools to thrive in a VUCA world, they can accelerate their long, slow slide into mediocrity and ineffectiveness (Johansen, 2012).

To be fair, any leader trying to influence, direct, and manage complex organizations in 2015 must navigate difficult and unfamiliar terrain. Leaders must indeed be prudent, thoughtful, careful, and strategic when it comes to casting vision, setting strategies, and developing and executing tactics that address existing barriers to move the organization forward. When it comes to making operational and structural decisions, seasoned leaders know the importance of embracing the belief that slower is better than faster and incremental adjustments are better than more aggressive actions that may cause harm to their institutions and to themselves. Yet it is this prudential approach to leadership and action that can also lead to problems.

When leaders take that slower and incremental approach in today’s VUCA environment, they can quickly become a liability to the organization. When the overriding concern for stability is a manifestation of a leader’s fear, anxiety, and a lack of self-efficacy in his or her ability make sound decisions, the leader ceases to be effective (Friedman, 2007). This leader can become, by default, a protector of the status quo, inappropriately applying empathy, excessive uses of power and control, and limiting collaboration and empowerment. This can result in a loss of credibility, trust, and quickly build the perception that the leader possesses a lack of competence and good judgment (Freidman, 2007). Taken to an extreme, these leaders may see any internal or external factor that leads to disruption as something to avoid, suppress, or control. Furthermore, these leaders run the risk of failing to evolve professionally and personally in ways that can stifle critical innovation, creativity, and the development of entrepreneurial thinking necessary to successfully and confidently navigate 21st century disruptions.

A Perfect Storm Producing Clueless Leaders?

As a leadership and management instructor, course texts typically address leadership relying on theories that were developed during the 20th century and were developed in response to emerging organizational needs, political and economic trends, as well as the needs and goals of generational cohorts. With the exception of Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow’s (2009), Adaptive Leadership, leaders today would be hard pressed to find any contemporary leadership theory that is an intelligent response to the disruptions, frictions, and conflict at work in many organizations. This may suggest that we have many educated and experienced leaders who know how to respond to “where we’ve been” but may be clueless when it comes to “leading to where we’re going.” Furthermore, with a new generational cohort on its way, what Alexandra Levit of The New York Times recently called “Generation Z,” (2015), there will be new pressures and expectations placed upon organizational leaders to navigate change, leverage disruption, build relationships, and accelerate global connectivity which, for this generation, is and will be the new normal.

A New Model for Leadership: The Disruptive World of High-Tech Startups

So where can leaders look for models of leadership where the primary drivers are not about self-preservation or institutional control but rather about anticipating and responding to the disruption generated from constant change locally, nationally, and globally? How can leaders capture and sustain relevance through innovation, creativity, and actualizing and aligning strengths while at the same time increasing the value of the organization to stakeholders? What sector of the industry offers new practices that can assist institutional and organizational leaders to view, understand, and embrace creativity, risk-taking, and organizational change in new ways? We can look directly into the High-Tech Startup community as a legitimate “ground zero” for innovative and responsive models of leadership. Innovation, nimbleness, and agility are direct linkages to survival and competitiveness in the successful Startup. These organizational cultures reject many of the traditional practices of leadership that focus on control and the mitigation of change (Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, & Lineback, 2014; Lidow, 2014). This is an approach to leadership that is concerned with creativity, speed, strengthening the sustainability of the organization, building a flattened organizational structure that pushes decision-making authority to those closest to the work, and ensures that products and services are competitive and possess high utility to internal and external clients and customers (Hill et al., 2014). These organizations are fueling strategic innovation and creative environments like no other because those who lead understand that operating with ambiguity is expected, disruption is the norm and necessarily leads to innovation, and that constant collaboration and empowerment leads to team members who are aligned and deliver incredible results. They also know that any other way of leading is the kiss of death (Hill et al., 2014).

Danger in Novelty?

Like any business, the High-Tech Startup community is far from perfect. In fact, Rory Carroll (2014) recently noted in The Guardian that the failure rate of start-ups is estimated to be close to 90%, which is similar to the failure rate of small businesses in other sectors. However, despite the failures, those start-ups that emerge as successes operate with a clear set of leadership priorities and unconventional thinking that leverages disruption and fuels consistent growth. Lidow (2014) observed that “virtually all the new job creation and economic growth comes from firms that have taken the entrepreneur’s original idea and transformed it into scalable activities that teams of people are motivated to work on together. These firms account for over 60% of all job creation” (p. xii). This does not happen by accident but by intentional design. So, what are those leadership practices that are “scalable” and “translatable” from the tumultuous world of High-Tech Startups to the more established institutions and organizations that are struggling for want of a new type of leader capable of leading in an environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?

Practice 1: Self-differentiation and Sustained Leadership Development

Friedman (2007), in building on the work of Murray Bowan, noted that effective leaders are self-differentiated leaders. These leaders have done the hard work of clearly defining who they are as autonomous individuals. They maintain their separateness while also maintaining their capacity to stay connected to people and organizations. They are independent enough to avoid the siren call of enmeshment and sameness while also being responsive, proactive, and engaged (Friedman, 2007). As leaders they can advance creative and innovative initiatives and also address the resistance that comes from those who stand opposed to them. They regulate their own emotions in the face of obstructions and do not allow the anxiety or the lack of emotional regulation on the part of others to distract and derail their own leadership responsibilities and organizational initiatives.

Friedman (2007) also noted that the self-differentiated leader will tend to attract others who also value self-differentiation. These individuals can engage in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial thinking while also addressing pushback or resistance. They can be innovative and measured risk-takers because they operate in an environment where they are not constrained by the fear of failure fueled by the anxiety of a controlling and enmeshed leader.

Finally, the self-differentiated leader values continuous leadership development. This is especially important in a VUCA world where words like adaptation, nimbleness, innovation, creativity, non-traditional, evolution, and integration become key drivers that inform a leader’s ongoing professional development and organizational relevance (Friedman, 2007; Schein, 2010). Despite the fact that many leaders have been conditioned to rely on the skills and tools they acquired on their way to their current positions, in today’s world of organizational leadership combined with cultural disruption and discontinuity, there is never a time when leaders stop developing and deepening their leadership portfolio. We need secure and confident leaders who have a clear sense of their own identity and evolving expertise, know how to work with others, and embrace disruption and crises as opportunities to move their organizations forward.

Practice 2: Making Culture the Priority

In the just released Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital research, which involved 3,300 surveys and interviews with business and human