Disruptors are getting a lot of attention these days. Uber reinvents the taxicab industry and almost overnight there are Uber-like features found at Taco Bell, Domino’s, and countless other enterprises. Tesla is transforming the car buying process, Jet.com is working on reinventing shopping clubs, and Apple is changing the landscape for wearables (Watch/Fitbit becomes a portal to everything). Is it time to examine the role of leadership through the lens of disruption?
Classic books on how to be a leader have focused on leaders as shepherds, buck stoppers, and controllers. But, disruptive leaders – those leading organizations that disrupt enterprise – are catalysts, partners, and risk takers. Whether the leadership prototypes are CEO Larry Page at Google, CEO Ginni Rometty at IBM, or CEO Mike DeFrino of Kimpton Hotels, their paths to influencing have striking similarities. Let’s zero in closer on their features.
Shepherds To Catalysts
When I was in Officer Candidate School at the Army Infantry School, we marched daily past a life-sized statue of an infantry officer charging into battle with the caption that was the theme of the school “Follow Me”. It is what shepherds do. Shepherds lead sheep by being out front; they do not herd from behind like rounding up cattle. Sheep are not very smart and will follow an alpha-sheep right off a cliff. The shepherd-infantry statue metaphor was never missed on me. It might be a relevant role-modeling concept for brawn-based jobs. In Army boot camp when a private started a sentence with “I think…” hardnosed drill sergeants screamed, “you aren’t paid to think, soldier, you are paid to fight!” Leaders were supposed to be emulated…and a little bit feared.
As organizations are populated more and more by smart employees pursuing innovative solutions in brain-based jobs, the proper role of the leader becomes that of catalyst, not shepherd. Catalytic leaders facilitate (make easy) more than they direct; they resource employees more than supervise. “My job as a leader,” wrote Google CEO Larry Page, “is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they’re having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society.”
Buck Stoppers to Partners
The sign on President Harry Truman’s desk resonates well with accountability-hunters looking for someone to praise or blame when performance succeeds or fails. The carrot-stick philosophy might be appropriate in a skill-based (as opposed to a wisdom-based) work world. I still emotionally struggle when everyone on my granddaughter’s soccer team gets a trophy, even though she worked the hardest and made the most goals and assists.
In my early years teaching leadership, we were adamant about a single point of accountability. Management by committee was abhorred; consequences had to be directed at the one person at the dead-end of the buck. Then I consulted with a few highly respected law firms, accounting firms and physicians groups. In a true partnership, risks are shared, accountability is shared, and even parts of leadership are shared. Leadership is about what an organization accomplishes when many unite and engage in the courageous work of providing value to the marketplace and improvement to the community in which it operates.
Controllers to Risk-Takers
When any employee says, “I will have to check with my boss,” I hear the paternal innuendo of a junior high school kid seeking permission for an overnight at a friend’s house. Granted, there are rational reasons why different people within any organization have different levels of authority. Boundaries are not all about power; many are about expertise and experience. But, make any request to any clerk at Nordstrom or to any contact center operator at Zappos and see if it follows with permission-seeking behavior.
Leaders in innovative organizations value the kind of risk-taking that results in originality, breakthroughs and growth. They value employee self-control over boss-control. They hire mature people then provide them wisdom-spawning training, enlightened support and one more powerful ingredient—respect! Respect means assuming the best in people. It means sharing authority, not hoarding it. And it means listening for intent and meaning instead of judging based on less than perfect semantics. In an innovation-centered work world, compassion trumps constraint and experimentation trumps instruction. Leadership comes from everyone, not the snooper-visor at the top of the org chart.
We live in times of massive and rapid change. The innovate or evaporate warning is not about avoiding a losing season; it is fundamentally about organizational survival. We have about reached the limits of incremental improvement as a strategy for growth and success. In the world of new (the root word for innovation), leadership must also undergo transformation in order to foster an innovative, disruption-creating organization. New leaders are risk-taking, partnership-driven catalysts that cultivate spirit, underscore purpose, and promote collaboration.
Today there are 13,000 yellow cabs in New York City and 16,000 Uber drivers. There are over a million Uber drivers worldwide. Six years ago, Uber did not even exist. If your leadership practices were as disruptive as Uber, what would your associates experience?