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The Self-Disruptive Leader

In the age of transformation, executives are forced to adapt to a new way of working.

By Michael Switow

In an age of disruption, what types of leaders are needed to drive organisational success?

“It’s no longer good enough to be agile,” explains Korn Ferry‘s Associate Client Partner Tim Wiseman. “You can’t just respond. You have to get in front. What we’ve used in the past to measure what ‘good’ looks like for leadership models is not going to get us to the future.”

Instead, Wiseman says the best leaders are people who “get in front and break things before their competition breaks them.”

This idea is at the core of a new model from the Korn Ferry Institute (KFI) called “The Self-Disruptive Leader.” KFI has coined the acronym ADAPT to describe five characteristics that such leaders need to succeed:

  • Anticipate rather than wait for disruption.
  • Demonstrate Drive and the ability to energize people who are constantly being asked to come up with new ways to do things.
  • Accelerate the flow of information and business outcomes.
  • Partner and pool resources when they don’t have sole ownership in non-hierarchical organisations.
  • Secure people’s Trust to achieve shared objectives.

“Disruption is here to stay. The innovation cycle is shortening. The tolerance for risk is increasing,” explains Wiseman, who has been a consultant since the 1990s and has focused on leadership development for the past 15 years, most recently in Hong Kong. “This innovation thing is not new to leaders, but how the innovation takes place is going to be the important part.”

A key difference between older success mindsets and this newer paradigm is that products and services are continually being improved. Companies do not aim for perfection right out of the gate. Instead of the mantra “failure is not an option,” companies release new product iterations as team leaders constantly “build, break, and rebuild.”

This framework was based on a survey of futurist literature and skills required for success, and the data from 150,000 senior leadership assessments. The results were mapped out with existing surveys and databases like the Global Innovation Index, World’s Most Admired Companies, and Fastest Growing Companies. The results showed that only 15 per cent of business leaders globally fit their disruptive model.

“This leaves a global shortfall of 85 per cent of leaders who urgently need to develop new future-ready skills to succeed in disruptive times,” KFI notes in its survey. “On the bright side, this does mean that there’s a core of leaders in today’s market that already possess the skills needed in the future. Future-ready leaders aren’t a distant ideal but a group that is here now, in many of our major companies, that can be used as a blueprint to help develop others with a similarly diverse skill set.”

Adapting in an age of disruption can sometimes mean abandoning one business model for another.

One company that has done just that is Phillips. The organisation was once synonymous with light bulbs, but after touring innovation centres in Silicon Valley, it divested its manufacturing operations and began focusing instead on “Li-Fi,” light-emitted Wi-Fi. It now works with municipalities to design lighting infrastructure and smart power networks. “They’re one of the few that actually did the pivot,” says Wiseman.

“As a high-tech firm, you can’t be business as usual or you will die,” agrees Katie Ng, the head of human resources at Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Hong Kong. The challenge, Ng argues, can be finding the right approach to further innovation.

One technique to address this challenge can be separating skills from mindsets. The skills or competencies associated with “drive,” for example, include the ability to manage ambiguity, nimbleness, and situational adaptability. The comparable mindsets for drive are composure, optimism, self-awareness, and empathy.

“Building skills takes some time, but building mindsets takes a bit more energy,” Wiseman concludes.

Tags: APAC, APAC July August 2019, Leadership, Magazine Article

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