How and Why Disruptive Leadership Works

Staying Hungry: Why Disruptive Leadership Works

Complacency is the dirtiest word in business today. Allow it to seep into the DNA of your organization and your business will go down faster than Jack rolled down the proverbial hill.

Whether it shows itself in tired product launches, unmotivated customer service, or disengaged employees, complacency is a core malady affecting every company you’ve ever watched flail and drown.

It’s the C-word that is capable of silently infiltrating every level of your organization before you even know what’s hit you.

I know firsthand because I led an organization that was quickly sliding from top tier to also-ran because the demands of the day were winning out over the need for forward thinking and a ‘stay-hungry’ attitude… and I was too busy to see it until it was almost too late.

That humbling experience taught me that the front line defense against complacency is truly disruptive leadership.

Leaders bold enough to break the rules, redefine the playing field, and effectively disrupt the status quo on a daily basis are the most effective long term at engaging their teams and driving results that go beyond what others are satisfied with – from the everyday to the extraordinary.

I learned this the hard way while leading the entertainment office of a global advertising agency .The competitive movie industry demands a ceaseless flow of creativity and I was taught early on that new ideas executed well are the real currency of success, not just in entertainment but in any competitive marketplace.

Of course, the demands of the day coupled with constantly cooking up new ideas can put a strain on even the best teams and, as a leader, you’re constantly faced with the challenge of keeping people motivated and engaged while simultaneously asking for both high levels of creativity and excellence.

And that is the twin-headed beast that almost brought me to my leadership knees.

My team was fried, burned out after working endless hours punctuated by a mountain of client requests and motivation busting revisions. A team that was long known for talk value ideas was now going through the motions of just getting through the day, focusing only on what ‘had’ to be done and never wasting a brain cell on what ‘could’ be done.

The problem was that the more this behavior developed into the new way of doing things, the more likely it was going to sink us long term. Top talent would leave, clients would be ticked off at us and looking around for a better solution, and product launches would ultimately fail amidst mundane strategy and lackluster execution.

I knew that gathering everyone together and enthusiastically imploring them to “win one for the Gipper” just wasn’t going to cut it. We needed a fast moving change of attitude and we needed it to stick.

And so I developed the ‘Deviant Advantage’ award.

Beginning with the controversial name, the award was meant to shake people out of their complacency fog and push them into embracing the notion that we were going nowhere fast unless we started deviating from what had become the normal way of doing things and we started doing it tout suite.

The award was simple enough. A sparkly top hat filled with five and ten dollar prizes awarded on the spot when anyone spotted you doing something ‘different’. Since anyone could award the prize, everyone was on the lookout for random acts of deviating so they could be the one to grab a bullhorn and announce with great fanfare that a peer, a boss, or some random person in the office had the cajones to break from the pack and find a better way. It was an event that everyone wanted to be a part of.

Such a simple award had a huge and immediate impact.

First, it created an environment that organically gave people ownership for engaging in, spotting, and rewarding small deviations from the normal way of doing things in the quest for better results.

Second, the power of social proof, or peer pressure if you will, reinforced that even busy people have the bandwidth to spark creative energy that feeds on itself within a team. It’s tough to say “you don’t have time” to come up with a better way of doing things when periodic bursts of impromptu fanfare springing up around you let you know that others just like you have discovered a way to make it happen.

The award not only stripped complacency from everyday tasks that people were doing on automatic, but also positioned the team to deviate on a grander scale and differentiate the organization’s results from the other competitors in the pack.


This idea of breaking out of normal patterns – both in modes of thinking and practice – is what drives disruptive leaders.

Disruptive leaders stay hungry and they develop teams and organizations that stay hungry, which is the fastest and most effective way to jump start ideas and behaviors that distinguish an organization.

They are rule breakers on a mission who refuse to accept the old adage that ‘near enough is good enough’. They are confident forward thinkers who are not afraid to provoke. And they are essential if you want to become a first-choice organization among talent and customers alike.

Regardless of which industry you’re in, it’s creativity that separates you from the also-rans. That creativity might manifest itself in the development of a piece of game-changing technology, or simply in finding a new way to optimize your business operations to boost productivity – and thus profits.

For me, it comes back to a quote by musician Frank Zappa: “You can’t have progress unless you deviate.”

Disruptive leaders like writing new chapters, big and small, and the optimism and fun they bring to the organization generates a blazing creativity, engaged teams, and increased market share.


Ahh, but can’t all that disruption lead to chaos and doesn’t chaos scare the bejeezus out of people? You bet, and that’s why the leadership part is as important as the disruptive part.

Disruptive leadership is only effective if it tiesto business strategy and goals that people understand. In that way, all of this rule breaking and deviating makes sense. It blends a touch of the familiar with all of this boundary pushing and suddenly rule breaking doesn’t seem so risky.

Disruptive leaders make people feel safe in their disruption.

If you’ve ever been called a pot stirrer or a loose cannon for suggesting something untried, you know the fear that can come from disrupting the status quo.

Disruptive leaders eliminate this fear. They pay attention, they develop an ‘intuitive muscle’ so that they know where people’s heads and hearts are and they support them from that starting place. They make disruption safe.

In today’s competitive environment, first choice organizations know capturing a greater share of their market is the lifeblood of long term success. And that takes teams who are fearless in pushing beyond complacency and into disruption that drives business results.

Encourage your team to embrace the positive possibilities — to dig deeper without fear of reproach — and you’ll be amazed by just how far they can go.


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