What is “Disruptive” Leadership? Ryan Ayers

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To “disrupt”, especially within the tech industry, has been a trending term in the last few years. At its most basic level, the term means is to change the way people think, or the way things are done, usually in a business setting. Disruption can destroy or change existing markets by producing a better alternative to existing products or services, and it can even change the face of entire industries. Innovation is closely linked to disruption, but they are not the same thing. Startups are disrupting industries, innovative minds are disrupting the way we do things, and nearly everyone agrees that well-executed disruption is a good thing. But how does it apply to leadership? Disruptive leadership might seem like a strange concept, since leaders have always been called on to help people work collectively toward the same, pre-defined goals. If that’s the case, then how does disruption fit into effective leadership?

The Definition of Disruptive Leadership

What defines a disruptive leader? In a nutshell, it describes someone in a leadership position who is always looking for better solutions, and ways to improve processes and the business overall, and isn’t afraid to shake things up to get the necessary results. Steve Jobs is a famous disruptor, and his leadership style and creative vision was largely responsible for Apple’s overwhelming success. Jobs was known for being brutally honest in his criticism—a practice he defended with the results of his team.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Disruptive Leadership

Disruptive leadership has many advantages. It helps keep people on their toes, and always reaching toward their best work. However, disruptive leaders don’t use interruption just for the sake of shaking things up: they use it to get things done. Jobs, for example, wasn’t about to accept normal benchmarks for success; he expected excellence in everything the team did, and that meant disrupting the status quo on a regular basis.

Disruptive leadership can also bring normal operations to a grinding halt, if normal processes get so uprooted that it becomes difficult to keep up with all the changes at once, or if the organization does not have the resources to manage the disruption. An example of this is the executive order from the Trump administration banning travel from citizens of 7 countries. The order was issued without much review and unclear limitations. This wasn’t disruption like a reactionary economic sanction, this was political disruption that had never been seen before. The move was ‘unprecedented’ in American history, and has shaken up both members of homeland security, citizens, and of course, detainees.

Is This Trend a Fad?

The idea of disruptive leadership is nothing new. In fact, it has roots stretching back to long ago, which is not surprising, since human nature has not changed significantly over time. James Lopata of Forbes describes how Zen masters have used the tactics of disruptive leadership to bring out the best in their mentees. Using the element of surprise to keep students (or employees) on their toes is a long-standing tradition, though it doesn’t always go by the same name.

However, there are trends that occur in every industry and culture, with leadership styles going in and out of fashion over the decades and centuries. While innovation is always a focus of new companies, startups today are laser-focused on challenging the status quo, and learning how to do things faster, better and cheaper. So while disruptive leadership can’t really be classified as a fad, it is currently trendy, thanks to the business climate we are witnessing in the United States.

Putting Disruptive Leadership into Practice

Many people who favor and have successfully implemented disruptive leadership have discovered how to use it through trial, error, and their natural personality. It’s important that those who want to give disruptive leadership a try do not just make decisions on a whim, and lose sight of their overarching goals. This leads to poor implementation and lack of trust on the part of the team—nobody feels that they have the security they need, or the faith in leadership to steer the team in the right direction.

As with anything, there’s a wrong way and a right way to practice disruptive leadership, and the line can be very fine. Cross too far over into being predictably critical (or just completely unpredictable), and you’ll find yourself characterized as the mean boss. Stay complacent and your team will too. As with most aspects of being a leader, getting it right isn’t easy—but the rewards for success can be great.