Competencies of disruptive leadership in managing the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital transformation at the workplace.
Disruption is happening everywhere and in every aspect of our lives. It is happening at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in modern history impacting diverse industries, from financial services to retail, media, logistics & supply chain, manufacturing, education, professional services, as well as healthcare and life sciences. Leaders are finding it challenging to navigate the near-insurmountable challenges resulting from the impact of these disruptive events on their operations and have to reinvent their operating and business models to ensure their survival.
Not every disruption is driven by advances in technology as we have seen in the case of COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020 where organisations all over the world face uncertain future in a global business environment that is highly disruptive and increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (collectively known as VUCA). (See Figure 1)
Figure 1: The New Normal of the World of VUCA 1
We face a new era of radical uncertainty and disruption brought about by other challenges such as climate change, financial crises, terrorism, Brexit, demographic changes in the labour market, health/disease risk, mass migration, and rapid developments in digital technology and its impact on transformation at the workplace. The management of shocks and crises is becoming an everyday occurrence. Organisations also need to be agile, and leverage opportunities and drive innovation to remain competitive in the face of challenging conditions. 1
What Makes a Disruptive Digital Leader?
Digital transformation is occurring at an unprecedented pace, creating a more connected world, and providing new opportunities for businesses to grow and create value. The disruptive impact of technology on organisations of every size and sector is infinite, and we know the pace of disruption is accelerating. Leaders must be ready to lead in the digital age.
It's also worth noting that today's organisations are in different places on the road to digital transformation. If you are feeling stuck in your digital transformation work, you are not alone. One of the hardest questions in digital transformation is how to get over the initial humps from vision to execution. Even organisations that are well down the digital transformation path face tough ongoing hurdles, like budgeting, talent struggles, and culture change.
To resolve these challenges would require "disruptive digital leaders" who are visionary when it comes to the technology frontier. However, all decisions are still rooted in fiscal discipline and overall enterprise mission. This demands a risk-tolerant mindset—future technologies are volatile, and user adoption is challenging to predict. But a true disruptive digital leader is driven by the challenge and potential for creating new business value by harnessing breakthrough technology.
Digital transformation can be viewed as the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business resulting in fundamental changes to how businesses operate and how they deliver value to customers. Beyond that, it's a cultural change that requires organisations to challenge the status quo continuously, experiment often, and get comfortable with failure, as it could be observed in organisations such as Microsoft, Starbucks, Grab, and DBS Bank as featured in the book Leadership in Disruptive Times. 1
A survey of the current research and perspectives on high potentials who could be future disruptive digital leaders 2-8 as well as similar research on disruptive and digital leadership 10-13 indicates specific disruptive leadership qualities.
These include, but are not limited to, a combination of variables such disruptive mentality (innovation-driven), visionary and entrepreneurial skills (creativity), cognitive readiness and critical thinking (mental agility), resilience and adaptability (change agility),. empathy and social skills (people agility), driving for success (results agility). 1 (See Figure 2).
Figure 2: The ‘Disruptive Digital Leader’ Competencies 1
Disruptive Mentality (Innovation-Driven):
Disruptive digital leaders empower their employees to innovate and cocreate by developing and providing the pathways for these employees to quickly move concepts into experiments and learning or impact across the organisation. Such leaders make innovation a priority and give employees and teams the time and space to collaborate, experiment, and learn with new digital tools like virtual reality, machine learning, and automation.
Visionary and Entrepreneurial Skills (Creativity):
Vision is even more vital in turbulent times of digital transformation at the workplace. When building a digital transformation strategy, disruptive digital leaders sell the idea of the long-term benefits the new technologies will bring. These leaders can envision where they want their organisations to be so that they can better weather disruptive environmental changes such as economic downturns or new competition. They can make business decisions to counter the turbulence while keeping the organisation’s vision in mind.
Cognitive Readiness and Critical Thinking (Mental Agility):
Mental agility—they are excellent critical thinkers who are comfortable with complexity, scrutinize problems, and make new connections. The suite of cognitive readiness skills that can be viewed as part of the advanced thinking skills that make leaders ready to confront whatever new and complex problems they might face.
Cognitive readiness is the mental preparation that leaders develop so that they, and their teams, are prepared to face the ongoing dynamic, ill-defined, and unpredictable challenges in the highly disruptive and VUCA-driven business environment.
Resilience and Adaptability (Change Agility):
Change agility—they are curious, like to experiment, and can effectively deal with the discomfort of change. While resilience is the ability to quickly recover from any difficulties, adaptability is taking those same difficult situations and adjusting to them accordingly, creating a positive outcome.
Being adaptable means you are able or willing to change to suit different conditions. If you are resilient then you’ll be able to withstand or recover quickly from unexpected or difficult conditions, adapting to (and often enjoying) change regularly. Disruptive digital leaders can lead an agile transformation successfully by adapting their leadership style and approach in managing their teams and projects.
Empathy and Social Skills (People Agility):
People agility—they know themselves very well and can readily deal with a wide variety of people and tough situations. Teamwork and collaboration are significant for organisations embarking on digital transformation. At a basic level, all employees, including leaders, have to be able to develop a productive relationship to get along and earn the support of supervisors and coworkers.
Emotional resilience allows an individual to remain comfortable with the anxiety that often accompanies uncertainty and to think “out of the box,” displaying on-the-job creativity and applying new ideas to achieve results. Conversely, people who are uncomfortable with risk and change may impact the organisational climate and undermine innovative ideas or be slow to respond to a shift in the marketplace.
Driving for Success (Results Agility):
Results agility—they deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams; they exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in themselves and others. Although organisations are grappling with the market disruptions arising from digital transformation, results-driven disruptive digital leaders can not only keep pace with the ever-changing business environment but also ensure successful adoption of digital solutions, achieving desired outcomes, and also aligning all employees to the established digital transformation imperatives with the set performance standards or KPIs.
As technology continues to disrupt the workplace, one of the key factors that would impact the success of the digital transformation is having the right team of disruptive digital leaders who can lead the digital transformation implementation successfully. Organisations should respond to this challenge by building new pools of skilled digital talent. To do so, they must identify who or what are the skills and attributes of these high-potential employees and assess and develop them into disruptive digital leaders who will lead the successful digital transformation initiatives at the workplace.
1 Bawany S 2020, Leadership in Disruptive Times, New York, NY: Business Express Press (BEP) Inc., LLC.
2 Chamorro-Premuzic, T S Adler, and R B Kaiser, 3 October, 2017, “What Science Says About Identifying High-Potential Employees?” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing.
3 Charan R, S Drotter, and J L Noel, 2001. The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey-Bass.
4 Corporate Leadership Council, 2010, Six Mistakes that Drive Away your Rising Stars. Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board.
5 Ready, D A, J A Conger, and L A Hill, June, 2010, “Are you a High Potential?” Harvard Business Review 88, pp. 78–84.
6 Silzer R, and A H Church, 2009a. “The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential.” Industrial and Organisational Psychology 2, pp. 377–412.
7 Bawany S 2019, Transforming the Next Generation of Leaders: Developing Future Leaders for a Disruptive, Digital-Driven Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), New York, NY: Business Express Press (BEP) Inc., LLC.
8 Hagemann B, and S Bawany, 2016b, “Enhancing Leadership and Executive Development—Latest Trends & Best Practices.” Leadership Excellence Essentials 33, no. 3, pp. 9–11.
9 Gibson P, K W West, and R Pastrovich, 1 April, 2020. Disruptive Leaders: An Overlooked Source of Organizational Resilience, Heidrick & Struggles Know-ledge Center, Heidrick & Struggles International.
10 Korn Ferry, 2019, The Self-Disruptive Leader, Korn Ferry Institute.
11 Freakley S, 4 April, 2019, “7 Skills Every Leader Needs in Times of Disruption.” The World Economic Forum.
12 Mortlock L, et al. 2019, Transformation Leadership in a Digital Era, Ernst & Young LLP.
13 Harvard Business Review, 2015, “Driving Digital Transformation: New Skills for Leaders, New Role for the CIO.” Harvard Business Review Analytic Services Report, Harvard Business School Publishing.
Prof Sattar Bawany is the CEO of Disruptive Leadership Institute (DLI) & Certified C-Suite Master Executive Coach of Centre for Executive Education (CEE). His latest book is Leadership in Disruptive Times.
Copyright © 2020 Singapore Institute of Management