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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 resource leaders from roughly 106 countries, building a culture of engagement emerged as the highest priority for organizations. Most readers will, no doubt, agree that an organization’s culture is tremendously important. What may also be apparent is that many organizational leaders may have paid an abysmal amount of attention to the intentional creation of a specific organizational culture that cultivates such things as engagement, leadership, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, or the capacity to thrive in periods of disruption and discontinuity (Brown, Chheng, Melian, Parker, & Solow, 2015; Schein, 2010).

For many leaders, addressing culture creation is an ambiguous, nebulous, and amorphous task better left alone. As Schein (2010) rightly commented, “culture is an abstraction” (p. 7). The reality is that culture can and must be intentionally shaped by leaders who seek to change the way their organizations operate. In our VUCA context, many of the types of cultures to which we are accustomed will no longer be sufficient to maximize the strengths and harness the creativity of people or organizations. While creating culture in a High-Tech Startup is often left up to the discretion of the founder or co-founders, changing the culture of an established organization is much more challenging and complex. Leaders must begin by defining a forward-titling vision of the organization (Schein, 2010, pp. 305-306) that considers the new realities of disruption and innovation. The vision must then be operationalized by core values that use behavioral terms describing the emerging culture which are compelling enough to pull the organization forward into new structures and processes that can support the emergence of a new culture (Schein, 2010). The gains must be embedded and moved through the DNA of the organization. Additionally, there must be people who are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the development of the emerging culture.

Heroku, founded in 2007 (purchased by Salesforce in 2010) and based in San Francisco, is a cloud application platform which provides ways to build and deploy web apps. In order to ensure that Heroku’s culture was experienced throughout the company, senior leaders began to hire “Vibe Managers.” The responsibility of the Vibe Manager was to ensure that Heroku’s culture was a daily experience up, down, and across the company. Brandon Carter Meixel, hired in 2012, was the fourth Vibe Manager at Heroku. As Brandon put it, his responsibility was to make sure that Heroku was a great place to work that attracted and retained talent from all over the world. “Our team strived to ensure that we retained talent by taking good care of our employees and keeping everyone aligned with Heroku’s core vision and values which we were always open to evolve where it made sense.” Heroku, and Vibe Managers like Brandon, have a great deal to teach organizational leaders about avoiding the critical mistake of treating culture as an afterthought. Culture, not strategy, drives innovation and performance. Heroku gets it (and so did Salesforce).

Practice 3: Identifying Managers and Supervisors who Actually Care about Engagement

Gallup’s (2015) recent publication on the State of the American Manager presents some abysmal but not surprising facts about the engagement level of managers. First, most CEOs are indifferent to engagement. Second, as a result, these leaders place little-to-no expectations on their human resources team to train and develop managers around engagement. Third, 82% of the time, organizations place the wrong people in positions of management. Fourth, disengaged managers spread disengagement like a contagion among employees and team members.

The price that people and organizations pay for senior leaders who are indifferent to engagement is significant. Rose, Shuck, Twyford, and Bergman (2015) observed the incredible price organizational members pay when dysfunctional and abusive managers are placed in positions of influence and power. When executive leaders and human resource departments are indifferent to the “engagement capacity” of those they place into formal positions of management, the results are often catastrophic. Not only does performance and morale disintegrate, but so does the team members’ self-valuing within and beyond the organization (Rose et al., 2015).

Successful startups, like Heroku, have zero tolerance for any manager or supervisor who does not consistently serve, resource, and recognize the strong value and contribution of every single team member. Senior leaders in these organizations believe so strongly in their product and the people who drive that product that they cultivate and protect an empowering culture and place people in positions of management who value human beings and their creative capacity.

Practice 4: Set Your People Free

One of the reasons many start-ups successfully mature into larger organizations is that they understand both the importance of constant innovation and the source of that innovation (Hill et al., 2014). The organizational environments where people are strongly encouraged to engage in collaboration and the creative exploration of new ways to accomplish work have what these authors call “collective genius.” These are leaders who create environments where “people are willing and able to do the work of innovation…and the opportunity to contribute his or her slice of genius to the collective genius of the whole” (p. 45). This approach that unleashes increased efficiencies and the development of powerful new ideas stands opposed to the modus operandi of leaders and supervisors who feel the need to control the spigot of ideas and possibilities. These leaders, often steeped in more traditional ways of managing as a form of control and the exercise of power, see themselves as gate keepers and permission granters. In reality, they kill innovation, suffocate collective genius, and accelerate the disengagement levels of the organization’s “most valuable asset.”

If a leader’s goal is to hire and retain the best for the organization, and if the goal of the organization is to deliver incredible products and services to customers and clients, it is absolutely imperative to create the space and expectation for innovation as a vital part of the organization’s DNA. Leaders must not merely tolerate innovation; rather, they must welcome it with opens arms. Talented and bright professionals want to add value through innovation and the creative and shared exploration of possibilities. This very point was noted by Petrie (2015) who observed that one of the trends in the future of leadership development will be “the decline of the heroic leader [and] the rise of collective leadership” (p. 21). When it comes to innovation, those leaders who are comfortable with the messiness of collective exploration and risk-taking will find their members highly engaged, committed, and productive.

The Way Forward

When it comes to a leader’s responsiveness to a climate of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, the High-Tech Startup community has a great deal to offer. In our highly competitive and rapidly changing business and educational environments, uncertainty, disruption, discontinuity, and the requirement of evolving as an organization are all critical to supporting survival and relevance. The way forward for leaders can no longer be found in clinging to leadership approaches that worked “yesterday.” The world in which organizations today must compete demands that managers and leaders be highly adaptable, collaborative, permission-giving, risk-taking, people-centric, and innovative across the board.

Becoming this type of leader is a matter of mind and will and it will not come easy to most who know only how to lead using position power, control, and authority. Leaders today would be wise to surround themselves with people who understand what it means to lead in a VUCA world. This means connecting to founders in the Startup community and exploring their approaches to such things as culture-creation, entrepreneurial thinking and planning, and cutting-edge management approaches that positively impact employee engagement. Leaders must ask questions of those respected leaders and managers within their own institutions who have a reputation for being innovative, engagement-centric, and results-oriented. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, leaders should consider hiring a cadre of Vibe Managers!


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Jeffrey D. Yergler, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Management and Chair of Undergraduate Management at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He began his work in Higher Education in 2006 at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington. He joined the faculty at Golden Gate in 2011. Jeffrey also serves as Principal of Integer Leadership Consulting located in San Francisco. Integer provides leadership development training, executive leadership coaching, diversity training workshops, employee engagement training for managers, collaboration around core values and culture change, assessments addressing 360 evaluations, leadership and management work styles, and analyzing/building team performance.