Leadership, Learning, and Letting Go: How the Disruptive Can Become Constructive

I spend my working life helping organisations deal with disruption. I focus on the media and entertainment industry these days, but I've covered sectors as diverse as health, energy, transport, and financial services.

I spend my working life helping organisations deal with disruption. I focus on the media and entertainment industry these days, but I've covered sectors as diverse as health, energy, transport, and financial services. There's one factor that's now common to all of them: digital technology isn't so much changing the game, as rewriting it altogether, and doing that so fast that leading-edge and bleeding-edge are sometimes all but indistinguishable.

Running a profitable and successful business in an environment like this is tough, and if there's one thing I've learned it's that this brave new world needs brave new leaders. The old certainties just don't work any more. Leadership is no longer just about setting a strategy and executing it well, it's about staying ahead of the game, and spotting the signs that the strategy you were so proud of may be getting past its sell-by date. Look at what's happened to parts of newspaper publishing, or music distribution, or even financial services - whole swathes of our economy are going digital, leaving in their wake a trail of failed businesses that either didn't realise what was happening quickly enough , or simply didn't want to see it. The time it takes for a leader to become a laggard is now terrifyingly tight.

It's all, as they say, about the tipping points: spotting them, seizing them, or even better, creating them yourself, by using disruption as a catalyst for change. Most of today's global powerbrands started life as disruptive influences - look at what Apple did to music, or Amazon did to books. Leaders within businesses need to be more like this, fostering innovation by encouraging everyone in their organisation to be 'intrapreneurs', and creating a culture in which new ideas can come from anywhere, and there's a high tolerance of failure, as long as it leads to useful learning.

So far, so good. But there's a flip-side too, and that's about letting go. I've lost count of the number of businesses I've seen over the years that have been saddled by the baggage of the past, whether a dying brand, an inflexible organisational structure, a creaking IT system, or the legacy of a long-ago merger. In the digital age, that's a recipe for fast disaster. Letting go of all this, to find a new and better way forward, is a very different type of learning, and one that both companies and individuals find much harder to do.

I've experienced this myself, in the most profound and personal way. My two year-old son suffered neurological damage at birth - possibly one of the worst sort of disruption any parent could ever face. At the beginning, I told myself I could still carry on with my old life - if I worked harder and was better organised I could care for him, attend hospital appointments, and still do my job just the same as I did before. And that was what I tried to do - pedalling faster and doing more. But it wasn't long before I realised that it simply wasn't sustainable, and it wasn't working either for my family or for my career. I had to change - I had to let go I had to open myself up to how I felt and what I feared, tackling some of my own behaviours aspects that were all-too-present: over-confidence (that I could manage everything); loss aversion (to losing things I'd worked so hard to build up); norms/assumptions I'd made.

It hasn't been easy, but I have now found a new equilibrium. I have different expectations for my son, but I'm happy with that, and I enjoy the different types of experience that he brings me. I see life differently, and I think and behave differently - I'm more patient, more contented, and more understanding of other people who face challenges just to lead what the rest of us would see as a normal life. And I've had to accept that I can't do everything -either at work or at home - and be OK with it. I now compartmentalise parts of my life far better (if not perfectly!) so that I'm more present and mindful when I focus on something.

I talked earlier about the need for brave new leaders, and I think that being able to let go is an integral part of that new style of leadership. Organisations will need to jettison outmoded ways of thinking and working if they're going to succeed in the new digital world, and their leaders will need the honesty, the openness, and the courage to accept it.

David Lancefield will be chairing the "Disruptive leadership for the digital age" seminar at Advertising Week Europe on Thursday 3rd April at 4.30pm. He leads PwC's Global Economics and Media Consulting practices and specialises in advising Media clients on transforming their business.


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