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Michaela Weller

Leading Edge Coaching Ltd

Director of Brand and Experience

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Disruption… leadership through change we didn’t create

Leading through disruption is different to leading through change.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m not hearing as many people stating ‘I LOVE change’ in the last couple of weeks. In these extraordinary times when the context in which we live and work is changing almost daily, I’m going to propose we’re now faced with a reality that is more about embracing disruption than the excitement of change. And for many of us and our fellow leaders, that’s unchartered waters. 

What’s the difference?

Dictionary definitions are useful to help us recognise what might be underneath our lack of comfort with disruption 

Change – to cause to be different
Disruption – an act of delaying or interrupting the continuity

And who is the ‘cause’ in that definition of change? Often us – the leaders. The captain on the bridge, the strategist, the first to the brave new world. We all tend to look to our leaders to spot the opportunities and risks on the horizon, and to navigate our course accordingly.  

In fact, we badge ‘change management’ as a key attribute of successful leaders. We recruit for it, run development programmes to support new skills in it, and recognise and reward it in our leaders. 

But what happens when the change is not ‘caused’ by the leaders, and their focus on identifying something on the horizon? What if it is instead unprecedented, without clarity, not time bound? 

Disruption is by its nature, like an uninvited houseguest. Its impact is to throw all plans up in the air and often undermines the assumptions on which our strategies and tactics are built.  So how can we prepare for the unknown/unforeseen that will interrupt our continuity?

Our current landscape is changing at such a rate that, if you wait for certainty, your message will be out of date almost before you stop talking.

Preparing for the unexpected 

Is there anything more smug sounding when you’re in the ‘eye of the disruption’ than the Benjamin Franklin quote “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”? His point is valid though.

The more we can create creative thinking opportunities BEFORE being faced with actual disruption, the more we can access a ‘lookalike’ blueprint of an approach. Elite sports teams do this exceptionally well. They undertake a rigorous level of scenario planning and contingency planning that ensures they can adapt to any circumstance because ‘we did this in training’.

Alex Danson, Team GB Hockey forward at both London 2012 (bronze medal) and Rio (gold medal) describes ‘Thinking Thursday’ at Bisham Abbey, where the coaching staff put the team under extreme tactical and physical stress, with the aim of finding a way to win. 

While it’s a fundamental activity across sport teams, for many leadership teams, it’s a narrow bandwidth activity that is either delegated to a business continuity function, or a nominal part of their strategic planning. 

We need to get contingency planning into our ‘muscle mass’ as a skill and habit of leadership.

Too late, disruption has arrived

“The best time to plant an oak tree was twenty-five years ago. The second best time is today,” said US political consultant James Carville. Another great point. Once we are in the disruption, the leadership gears need to shift. Leaders now need to focus on being visible, being clear and being authentic. 

There’s no point waiting to have absolute clarity to communicate. Our current landscape is changing at such a rate that, if you wait for certainty, your message will be out of date almost before you stop talking.

I recently came across a story shared by Deborah Ancona in ‘The Handbook for Teaching Leadership’ about a military unit lost in the Alps, which used a map of the Pyrennes to rescue themselves. She told the story to illustrate the art of leadership sensemaking (Karl Weick), which she defined as ‘coming up with a plausible understanding – a map – of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning, the map depending on how credible it is.’

As leaders, I’d suggest we’re not going to be judged on the quality or accuracy of our map. But we will be judged for not creating some version of a map from here. 

It’s more than ok to focus on care and compassion for your teams than the long-term plan right now.  

You don’t have all the answers. Fact. 

If you’ve grown up in your industry, sector or company, you no doubt have a wealth of knowledge and experience that in business-as-usual times is deemed invaluable. But I’d hazard that not one of us has lived and worked through an experience anything like the one we are currently facing. 

Through habit and reverence, you’ll find many faces within your organisation still turned towards you and your leadership colleagues expectedly, looking for clarity and leadership. 

It’s ok to say, ‘I don’t know’. It’s ok to defer to other experts, either within or outside your organisation. Or in the current circumstances, where we may feel we’re short of experienced experts, it’s ok to be vulnerable. It’s more than ok to focus on care and compassion for your teams than the long-term plan right now.  

Focus on the things you can control. Be aware of the leadership shadow you cast. It’s enough to be visible, to be accessible, to be human. 

In summary, my tips for leadership through disruption are:

  • Find any lookalikes learnings. What similar experiences do you have of disruption even on a contained level? Use the blueprint from these experiences where you can. Focus on what you can control
  • Get practised at contingency planning. Use time wisely now. Start to scenario plan next week, next month, next six months with your peers and leadership team
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Even if you’re not sure what to say, be authentic, be available, be accessible in the organisation. Ultimately, be human

Author Profile Picture
Michaela Weller

Director of Brand and Experience

Read more from Michaela Weller

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