Disruptive Leadership and Disruptive Innovation: Risks and Benefits
By Fast Company Executive Board
When we’re growing up, to be disruptive is to be a problem. Disruptive kids are limit pushers and rule breakers, and they tend to make life hard for teachers.
Luckily, some disruptive kids master the system and grow up to do great things. As Richard Branson said, “On one of my last days at school, the headmaster said I would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.”
If you’re a disruptor who grew up strong, congratulations — you have the capacity to make big things happen as a disruptive leader.
What is Disruptive Leadership?
Disruptive leaders put tendencies toward rule-breaking and questioning to good use. This style of visionary leadership is about making change and making progress. It’s characterized by a willingness to challenge the status quo and take bold, innovative action, and emphasizes thinking outside the box.
GovConWire says, “Disruptive leadership means that you are always looking for better solutions to your problems and searching for ways to innovate your organization’s products, services, and processes. Instead of going along with the norm, disruptive leaders always ask themselves: how can I make this better?”
>Disruptive leadership doesn’t just affect the leader; it impacts the entire organization. In a culture of growth and creativity, people are constantly seeking out new ways to improve processes, products, and services. By encouraging employees to think outside the box and take risks, a disruptive leader can inspire new ideas and approaches that give the company a competitive advantage.
What Is Disruptive Innovation?
The main benefit — the raison d’etre of disruptive leadership — is to foster the kind of culture that leads to disruptive innovations. This is especially important in fast-moving industries where staying ahead of the curve is critical to success.
But not every change is a disruptive innovation. What differentiates a disruption from an ordinary step forward?
According to Indeed.com, “disruptive innovation is the idea that the invention of a new product can disrupt an entire market, changing what consumers want out of a business or what employees expect from their employer and vice versa.”
These are the kinds of significant changes that innovative businesses want to make. And they are the kind that require disruptive leaders who are willing to take risks and think outside the box.
If you’re a disruptive leader, there are two big risks to watch out for. They can undermine your best efforts, and they’re unavoidable. The best you can do is make efforts to minimize their effects.
Risk 1 - Destructive Disruption
The first big risk of disruptive innovation (creating problems for disruptive leaders) is the chance that your changes might go wrong.
“It [disruptive innovation] has to be done constructively, because disruption can destroy value. What we want to do is find a constructive disruption that creates value for our consumers, our communities, and other stakeholders—to build our company and empower our people,” says David Taylor, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble.
In order to instigate disruption while minimizing risk, Taylor chose to reorganize teams, eliminate layers of management, and create small groups that could take on new projects quickly. These changes have allowed P&G to make strides toward mitigating environmental impact while also keeping risk manageable.
Risk 2 - Facing Resistance to Disruptive Leadership Style
No matter how much they try to mitigate risk, disruptive leaders can face resistance from those who are resistant to change. You’ll have to handle this resistance in a productive and effective way and avoid alienating those who are concerned about big changes.
To be effective with a disruptive leadership style, you’ll need to build a lot of trust - first with your board, if you have one, and your senior leadership team, and then with your entire roster of employees. You’ll need to clearly communicate your vision so that everyone is in the loop all the time, and allow plenty of time to build consensus and support.
Pay attention to feedback from:
Leadership: Your company’s senior leaders are smart people who have a lot of experience with what works and what doesn’t in business. They will have valid concerns about contradicting proven tactics.
Customers: Disruption may not be well-received by customers or other stakeholders if it involves significant changes to products or services that they rely on.
Employees: Introducing constant change in the workplace can lead to stress and uncertainty for employees, which leads to poorer performance and turnover.
Important: while you’re hearing people out, make sure you’re really listening. Find ways to mitigate the risks they’re concerned about to increase your chances of success with big changes.
Disruptive leadership can be an incredibly effective way to drive innovation and bring about positive change in business. By adapting to change and encouraging experimentation disruptive leaders lead their teams to new heights of success.
But it is a risky style that comes with dangers to be addressed, and is not right for every situation. Carefully consider the unique needs and circumstances of your organization before adopting a disruptive leadership style.
For more leadership insight, take our quiz to determine your leadership style, read our list of best books on visionary leadership, or consider applying for membership to Fast Company Executive Board, where you’ll be surrounded by other innovators making big changes in their industries.