The Perils of Disruptive Leadership

The headline in one of the New York Times’ sections recently read: San Francisco Lands a Disrupter. Who was the Times referring to another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, perhaps? No, this was the well-regarded conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be taking over the San Francisco Symphony and is referred to by the paper as one of classical music’s great disrupters. While the paper did not define exactly what it meant by referring to Mr. Salonen as a disrupter, there are clear hints all over the article.

For example:

“Mr. Salonen hopes to shake up the standard orchestral structure … and to …  “rethink the possibilities of what a symphonic ensemble can be.”

One of the experimental flutists who the reporter spoke to said she was attracted by “his willingness to break rules.” Salonen has worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra on virtual reality projects, immersive installations and an iPad app. The committee searching for a new conductor said it summarized the job description in terms of five bullet points:

  • musicianship
  • leadership
  • vision
  • motivation
  • evangelism

In the May-June 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review, the recruiting firm Korn Ferry has a two-page advertisement with the heading entitled, “Self Disrupt or Be Disrupted.” The advertisement explains the need for “self-disruptive” leaders in a time when disruptive forces are at work.

Now you may recall when you were in elementary school (I certainly do) and some teachers would scold those children who were being disruptive. Or in middle school, teachers would single out those kids who were a disruptive influence on others. So I had grown up believing that being disruptive was not such a good thing.

Not any more, it seems! I’ve been reading a lot about disruption lately – many positive, but also some not so positive. The driving forces behind the need for disruptive leadership seem to be the following,

  1. The environment has become so dynamic and unpredictable and will become even more so, especially with the advances in AI and digitization, that leaders are needed who can anticipate this disruption.
  2. In many organizations, the status quo is so entrenched and so intractable that the current state of affairs requires disruptive leadership to unmoor it.
  3. Businesses are counting on innovation more than ever to grow, and the perception is that disruptive leaders are those in the best position to lead such innovation.

In addition, we have seen executives from the outside who have been hired to “shake things up.” Some, such as Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor Company and Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, succeeded; while others, such as Bob Nardelli (former CEO of Home Depot) and Ron Johnson (former CEO of J. C. Penney) did not.

Recently, several executives I have spoken to have also mentioned the need for more “disruptive” leaders in their organizations. From my small sample, these are the four characteristics that the executives I spoke with said that they see in disruptive leaders:

  • Bold.
  • Willing to challenge.
  • Question the status quo and break the rules.
  • An ability to think “outside of the box” and remaining doggedly persistent.

I asked, why are they looking for these disruptive leaders? What do they hope to accomplish by having such leaders? Almost unanimously, the responses were: 

“To spur greater innovation and breakthrough thinking, and to transform the culture into one that is more agile, nimble and resilient.”

These two objectives of producing greater innovation and a nimbler culture – are ones that many organizations are pursuing these days, whether they are budding start-ups or more established firms like Unilever and General Motors. Many believe that one way to get there is by having more disruptive leaders who can be “game changers” in their organizations. However, the research shows that individuals who have some of the characteristics of disruptive leaders also tend to have other less desirable characteristics. Let’s take a look at the Hogan Development Survey, a well-known assessment instrument for measuring a leader’s derailing characteristics. According to Hogan (2007), most people will display certain counterproductive tendencies when under pressure.

In fact, “under normal conditions these characteristics may actually be strengths. However, when you are tired, pressured, bored, or otherwise distracted, these risk factors may impede your effectiveness and erode the quality of your relationships with customers, colleagues, and direct reports.”

In Hogan’s research, there are eleven such risk factors or derailers. The four characteristics of disruptive leaders I described earlier belong to a subset of these derailers; specifically:

  • Being bold can lead to a leader’s unwarranted self-confidence and an unwillingness to listen to feedback.
  • A willingness to question, challenge the status quo, and break the rules can lead to taking risks while ignoring the consequences and acting impulsively.
  • Consistently thinking outside the box  can lead to losing focus on the core aspects of the business and having so many ideas that execution gets sidetracked.
  • Being doggedly persistent can lead to stubbornness and not letting go of pet projects and ideas that may not be realistically executed.

So if you want to be a disruptive leader, or you already have some of the characteristics of a disruptive leader, what can you do to counterbalance these derailing tendencies, especially when you are under pressure? In addition to increasing your self-awareness and getting feedback from others, here are four quick suggestions for you to consider (actually, these can apply to any leader who wishes to successfully transform his or her group, team, or organization).


  • Deeply understand the context or organizational situation in which you find yourself. Find out what has worked in the past, and what hasn’t worked. Understand the barriers to change, and the cultural heritage of the company. Internally, seek out those who have been with the company for a while, who are credible, and who know the skeletons in the closet. At the same time, talk to individuals who have joined the company in the past six months to learn what frustrations they might have. Externally, reach out to those working in the same industry as well as in other industries to get lessons learned about how these companies were able to shake up established markets to disrupt and succeed.


  • Complement your disruptive mind-set by building on specific skills. Here, I’d like to turn to the recent work by Dyer et al. (2011), in which they researched the 25 most innovative companies in the U.S. and came up with what they describe as the five “discovery” skills of disruptive innovators:

Associating (the ability to make surprising connections across different areas of knowledge, industries and geographies), Questioning (asking a lot of questions, e.g., what, why; and a lot of provocative questions, e.g., why-not, what-if), Observing (e.g., watching customers, learning to look for surprises or anomalies, finding opportunities to observe in a new environment), Networking (not for career progression but to actively tap into new ideas and insights by talking with people who have diverse ideas and perspectives), and Experimenting (trying out new ideas through exploration, taking things apart, testing ideas through pilots and prototypes). These are skills that you can build through practice, especially with the help of a coach.


  • Frame your ideas in a broader context; don’t just sow chaos without having people understand the big picture and especially what the impact of the disruption will mean – for the company’s future, its reputation and impact on society, and how employees will benefit. It is especially important to communicate what will not change. You want to create some sense of stability and not have people feel that you are throwing everything up against the wall and seeing what sticks. Beware of creating change just for the sake of change, and make sure that changes can ultimately be integrated into the fabric of the company. At the same time, you never want to allow the organization to slip back into a state of complacency; employees need to believe that they have to get out of their comfort zone.


  • Create a climate of “psychological safety” so your team will feel free to speak up, to be candid, and to push back if needed. Amy Edmondson (2019) has written persuasively about the benefits of psychological safety, and what can happen when this is absent. In its own research, Google has found psychological safety to be one of the most important leadership practices for creating effective teams (Garvin, 2013).

With all this, what’s most important, in my opinion, is that you as a leader need to have the inner courage and determination to do what you (and those in your team you respect) believe has to be done for the good of the organization. It is what Andy Grove did when he made the decision to move away from the memory chip business to microprocessors, despite the success Intel was having at that time with the chip business. It is what Satya Nadella did when he made the decision to shift Microsoft’s business to cloud computing. It is what Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani did when he acquired an old factory in upstate New York to start his dream of a yogurt business. It is what Yves Chouinard of Patagonia, is doing with his company’s environmental practices (e.g., introducing patented chocks to eliminate the harm to rocks from climbing products, encouraging consumers to actually buy less).

Dyer, J. et al. (2011). The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

Edmondson, A. (2019). Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace. Harvard Business Review.

Garvin, D. (2013). How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management. Harvard Business Review.

Hogan, R. et al. (2007). The Hogan Guide: Interpretation and Use of Hogan Inventories.