We’re living and working in an age of disruption. Automation, digital transformation and geopolitical instability are becoming the new normal. And of course there’s plenty of advice from consultants and commentators: successfully adapting to the new disruptive age takes flexible and agile leadership.
But when have we not needed leadership that can pivot and adapt to rapid change? It’s true that the pace of change is increasing. But disruption, both technological and political, has always been with us.
Leadership Can Drive Disruption
Let’s also not forget that disruption isn’t just a constant in our societies. From when humans first figured out to use fire, through to our tech enabled age, disruption has been the driver of society.
And if that’s the case leadership isn’t about simply responding to disruption. Leadership is about redefining disruption.
So instead of just adhering to that business truism ‘adapt or die’, what about going beyond adapting to disruption? Yes, we can adapt our organizations to take advantage of the current disruptive environment. Or we can do something more audacious.
We can pivot the disruption itself to take it further. We can think beyond the scramble to survive so we can lead society forward.
Surviving or Thriving?
Yes that’s an ambitious aim. And maybe survival in a harsh climate is more top of mind for many. It’s understandable that living through a period of major change is disconcerting to say the least.
But humans have lived through empires that have come and gone. Scientific discoveries have revolutionized how we do business and major social and political upheavals have changed lives irrevocably. Just think of the two world wars in the last century; or the consequences of the Reformation in Europe 500 years before that.
The current digital and automation disruptions are only new in terms of the technology now available. From the dawn of agriculture to the invention of the steam engine, disruption has been with us at every turn of history.
And those disruptions had evangelists and naysayers just like our current technological, economic, and workplace culture transformations.
Leadership as a Disruption
What if evangelizing or doom-mongering weren’t the only responses to a disrupted business environment?
Let’s say we want to be more ambitious and imaginative. What does it look like to redefine disruption?
Back in the 18th century a man called John Fitch commissioned a full size locomotive engine. He did more than move the idea of factory steam engines on. He redefined the steam age disruption by building and operating the first commercial steamboat. More recently, when everyone else was selling hardware Bill Gates saw a future in software and he redefined the computer disruption.
Disrupting With a Leadership Mindset
Often we focus on the outsize technical minds of people like John Fitch and Bill Gates. And yes there’s no doubt neither of them would have had an impact without their technological abilities. But they each had another quality that’s more important when it comes to redefining disruption.
And that’s a leadership mindset.
The good news is that a leadership mindset is something we can all cultivate. Redefining disruption requires us to draw on our innate ability and mindset to lead through change. And that’s the case whatever our field or role.
Qualities like a genuine curiosity, flexibility of mind and a determination and resilience to overcome seemingly impossible setbacks. Those are just some of the qualities of a leadership mindset.
They’re the innate human qualities we’ve drawn on countless times through history when facing the latest disruption.
And it’s that mindset we need to reawaken in our current age of disruption.
Do that and the most disruptive thing of all happens: we’re no longer leaders being blown around like kites in a storm; we become kite flyers holding the wind in our hands.
A version of this blog first appeared on the World of Learning 2017 blog.
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