Many disruptive leaders not only radically change traditional ways of doing of business but are also committed to challenging generally accepted norms of leadership behavior and business propriety. They are among the most ambitious people in the world and are known to push ethical and legal boundaries in their unrelenting drive to get what they want.
Many of them have learned how to modify their more extreme behaviors when necessary but a few have also gotten so ahead of themselves that their boards had no choice but to fire them.
Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, is the quintessential high- profile example of a successful disruptive leader whose success and ego blinded him to the necessity of building a culture of accountability and ethics and adhere to local and state employment laws. The company was sued, investors left in droves and many municipalities threatened to cancel their licenses.
The descriptions below give us a snapshot of how the world—or at least how the media—views the behavior of several of these leaders.
- “Jeff Bezos may be a visionary, but when it comes to his business, it seems he also has a bit of a murderous streak. He won’t let competitors beat him, even if it means killing his core business.” – Jill Krasny, technology writer
- “Jeff may be outwardly goofy, with that trademark laugh, but he’s a very tough guy…If he goes even halfway through (any disruption he undertakes), there is no way he’s not going to break some eggs.” – James Marcus, Amazon employee number 55
- “(Elon Musk) is impatient and demanding and doesn’t accept that problems can’t be solved. He’s also admirably nerdy…Nothing makes Musk happier than dealing with technical issues and big- picture challenges that require complex engineering solutions.” – Matthew DeBord, technology writer
- “Personality tests given to key execs (have) repeatedly shown (Michael) Dell to be an off-the-charts introvert. At its heart is Dell’s belief that the status quo is never good enough, even if it means painful changes for the man with his name on the door. When success is achieved, it’s greeted with five seconds of praise followed by five hours of postmortem on what could have been done better.” – Andrew Park, technology writer
- “[Reid] is not particularly well organized. But perhaps his day- to-day chaos partially enables his creativity. Creativity involves connecting disparate ideas. The man is a non-stop generator of ideas—perhaps the unstructured tempo of his life is a positive enabling force.” – Ben Casnocha, coauthor with Reid Hoffman of The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself and Transform Your Career
- “Reid is not a business-running kind of guy. He likes to take off his shoes, think of the world broadly and not worry about corporate spend and margins.” – David Siminoff, Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur
- ‘Reed Hastings has a restless, slightly paranoid attitude, combined with a Steve Jobs-like perfectionist streak”” – John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers
Clearly, there is no standard set of behaviors disruptive leaders are expected to adhere to, and these few examples make clear how contradictory and complex these individuals can be: visionary, murderous, goofy, nerdy, technical, complex, solution-oriented, introverted, critical, intellectual, nonlinear, chaotic, restless, unbusiness like, laid-back, paranoid, perfectionist, and on and on.
Given the chaos that a big and audacious disruption can leash, it is quite natural that those of us who feel we have a lot to lose from a disruptive event will fight hard against it, questioning the disruptive leader’s ethics or whether his or her ego is getting ahead of the game. Unfortunately, any large-scale disruption is going to produce winners and losers, and disruptive leaders are almost always lightning rods for controversy.
Most disruptive leaders have no problem thinking outside the box, and many actively push the boundaries of what society considers to be ethically and legally correct at the time. But the course of history has shown that yesterday’s moral frameworks are swept aside by the next generation’s view of what is right and ethical.
Large egos are not always welcome by society, and disruptive leaders need to have a healthy ego in the face of resistance. But truly great leaders understand the importance of keeping their egos from getting in the way of being open-minded and learning during the process of a big, audacious disruption. These leaders replace ego with confidence.
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