Disruptive Leadership in a Terminator-free World


Change happens fast. When it does, it is our responsibility to ensure that our workforce is ready. Some leaders do this by keeping everyone on a constant state of high alert. Others rush through the change in hopes of returning to a state of peaceful serenity. A third option is to embrace disruptive innovations by serving as a T-800 of disruptive leadership.

If you are unfamiliar with the T-800, that is the Terminator killing machine who was re-programmed to safeguard the human race from IT-induced annihilation. The Schwarzeneggeran T-800 travels back in time to accomplish this feat, serving as a guardian to those under his protection. Leaders play a similar role and must often take similar (though less violent) extreme measures to ensure the survival of the organization.

To prepare a workforce for potential threats, we must first be familiar with Clayton Christensen and Joseph Bower’s classic Harvard Business Review article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. In it, they discuss how a new product or service can “surprise” those who do not recognize and/or accept the imminent competition. What would be an otherwise successful leader, company, or industry can find itself obsolete when the new idea is introduced. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case.

Consultant David O’Ryan proposes that disruptors need not be so disruptive. His constructive disruptive technology involves integrating existing practices with new innovations to create a seamless, strategically-aligned transition. The “constructive” aspect keeps you current and competitive as it “disruptively” impacts your business model, practices, and workforce. Once we accept this idea, the next step is determining how to get our team ready.

Without knowing what the next threat will be, where it will originate, or how it will threaten us, there are ways we can embolden our culture and prepare for a Skynet/Genisys-esque coup.

  1. Encourage new ideas. This is easy to say and we all think we’re doing it. The test is whether you’re willing to encourage people to generate new ideas that run counter to how you are currently operating. Once this culture is in place, you will no longer simply react to disruptions, you’ll begin to create your own. This will keep your team sharp and your business ahead of the curve.
  2. Don’t jump ahead. When we become impatient, there’s a tendency to create low-end disruption. This occurs when the rate at which we push change exceeds the rate at which our team can adopt it. Keep close tabs on staff so you’re immediately aware when they are not engaged. You may need to revise your communication, regain their buy in, or possibly slow down.
  3. Incentivize resourcefulness. Many disruptions are not based on advanced technologies but on finding novel ways to use existing elements. Before shopping for new contraptions or products, urge your team to be creative with what they have. And when they find a new approach, make a big deal of it so others will be more willing to try, as well.

Most of us are not as lucky as Sarah Connor – she had a robot sent from the future whose sole task was to protect her from threats. We must rely on our experience, our instincts, and our teammates. Remain on the lookout for impending changes, ponder threats that may initially seem inconsequential, and act quickly when clear threats arise. This will protect you from killing machines and any other disruptions you are bound to confront.

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