Business and Leadership Thought Capital

The 21st Century and the Age of Disruption

For most of the world’s population, the evening of Dec. 31, 1999 wasn’t that much different than any other New Year’s Eve. Like hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, I had been invited to a small dinner party. At 11:45 my hosts, fellow guests and I donned our year 2000 spectacles, grabbed a glass of champagne, hooters, streamers and confetti and headed to the roof deck to watch the fireworks over Manhattan.

The only potentially extraordinary event was the collapse of the world’s computer systems the minute the clocks turned to 12 am on Jan. 1,, 2000. (Decades earlier somebody forgot to put enough aughts in a key piece of software code.) But that frisson of anticipation disappeared quickly. My colleagues in IT consulting had done their job well and Y2K turned out to be a non-event.

During the early days of the new millennium, I doubt there was a living soul on Earth who could have predicted the series of disruptive events that would unfold during the next few years. Coming at a fast pace, many of these incidents were highly destructive. But a handful of global events supported and accelerated positive developments of many of the world’s most established and powerful educational, religious, governmental and business institution.

For the first time since WWII, the U.S. was attacked on its own soil when a handful of Islamic terrorists flew airplanes into key buildings in New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, killing over 3,000 American citizens. Routine cyber-attacks on our IT systems have made the potential Y2K meltdown look like child’s play. Rival powers like Russia have blatantly meddled in our electoral process.

The financial “correction” of 2001 may not have been such a surprise to many experts, but even the mightiest and smartest among us were blind-sided by the crisis of 2007/2008. We are still feeling the disruptive effects of the almost complete collapse of the world’s financial system.

As of 1999, Amazon’s revenue had only just passed the billion-dollar mark and if anyone used the word social media they were probably referring to how TV, newspapers and magazines covered parties thrown by the rich and famous. Seventeen years later Amazon is fast approaching $200 billion in revenue and over two billion people use some form of social media. Ninety percent of them have an account on Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, became the youngest self-made billionaire at 27 when the company went public in 2012. Like Bill Gates before him, he proved that completing a college degree at Harvard isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for success, happiness and wealth.

But it is a Chinese conglomerate, Alibaba, that is currently the largest company in the world. And despite its size, Alibaba is growing much faster than its main competitor, Amazon, a company that has successfully used disruptive tools and techniques to quickly build a large, sustainable global business.

The word “disruption” certainly has a lot of negative connotations and yet it has become part of our lingua franca. When business people talk about disruptive technologies, disruptive innovation and disruptive business models they are often referring to management practices that have the power to transform individuals, companies and indeed large portions of society while generating huge value for thousands, if not millions of people.

These days the most ambitious millennials aspire to become disruptive leaders and not just mere entrepreneurs or CEOs. Many older leaders also understand that if they aren’t prepared to actively disrupt how they run their businesses, the expiration date on their careers and companies will come sooner than expected. The truly great ones not only pro-actively disrupt themselves but also their employees, their investors, their families and even their competitors in their burning desire to make an impact and create unimaginable wealth.

As a consultant I have also seen CEOs – often supported by Boards unwilling or unable to step in and take control – allow entrenched thinking at their companies to prevail and avoid disruption at all costs. Innovation and motivation fall off. Employees, suppliers, customers and investors lose faith but keep soldiering on, hoping things will improve until the day someone has the guts to call it a failure and everybody feels even worse than before.

Over the years I’ve learned that it is not the size of a company that determines whether a business is sustainable or not. Rather it is whether a company’s leadership has the courage and the acumen to disrupt themselves and/or other companies as often and deeply as is required.

A powerful disruption coupled with a clearly defined and communicable value proposition and the ability to implement that vision can lead to waves of innovation that revolutionize products, categories and whole businesses. Disruptions can rescue companies from the brink of collapse and help them gain market and mind share. However, these efforts often require a dramatic and painful change to counterproductive mindsets, behaviors and/or systems as a first step before the actual work can begin.

But disruption is not a license to be willful, selfish, unmindful or authoritarian. Just the opposite—successful disruption in business and in life requires discipline, finely honed skills, techniques and tools, a high EQ and IQ and the right mindset. In the wrong hands, disruption can quickly become destruction, mowing down everything in its path and eradicating value faster than it was created.

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