We live in a world of unparalleled change, much of it good (think of the benefits of mobile communications, the internet and advances in food production that have led to a steady reduction in global poverty), but alongside these benefits come real problems (from the changes needed to address climate change through to the more immediate struggle with cyber-security).
As leaders, we all know the dangers of ignoring the changes happening around us, but I believe it is important for successful leaders to do more than just react. Successful leaders need to get ahead of those changes… to innovate and to disrupt.
Of course, this problem is not completely new… indeed, the Chinese General and military strategist, Szun Tzu, wrote some 1500 years ago “Those who arrive early at the place of conflict, will be in a position to take initiative.”
In the past, the pace of change in the world meant that business leaders could rely on motivation and a little bit of innovation to move their organisations forward and “arrive early at the point of conflict”, but the pace of change is now so fast that old approaches are no longer adequate.
The successful leaders of today need to be brave… brave enough to embrace both innovation and disruption; to understand the likely consequences of emerging technologies and to apply these technologies in their own organisations.
Why brave? Well, over the next few years, new and innovative technologies such as AI and robotics will have an effect on the workplace unparalleled since the Industrial revolution.
We are already surrounded by new businesses formed to exploit these innovative technologies and disrupt existing industries. If the challenge of leading these new businesses is great, it is even greater for the leaders of existing businesses who also have to wrestle with stakeholder expectations as to how they manage their legacy activities (maintain sales, grow profitability, etc.) whilst simultaneously keeping up with the disruptors. Nobody said that being a disruptive leader would be easy!
So, it’s not surprising that the natural tendency of many leaders is to pay lip-service to innovation and disruption, whilst hoping that the “old normal” of gradual change will return, and the need for disruption goes away.
What if leaders are not disruptive? They can hope the problem goes away, but hope is rarely an effective strategy. In fact, the real danger is that leaders become part of the problem. As the American polymath and scientist, James Pournelle said in his “iron law of bureaucracy”:
‘In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.’
So, the challenge to all of us is to look at how we can embrace innovation and disruption so as to avoid becoming one of the “people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy.”