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Interrupting disruption: The changing role of leadership

Bombardier, which recently saw executive chairman Pierre Beaudoin, seen here, step down, found itself in hot water after announcing a controversial plan to increase executive compensation at a time of mass layoffs and taxpayer bailouts.


As the term "digital disruption" becomes the mantra and primary concern in many industries, the skills once considered prerequisites for corporate leadership are declining in importance.

Leaders have traditionally been expected to execute a singular vision with unflinching determination, directing a top-down workplace composed of individual departments. But that is changing, said Kate Morican, partner of strategic change and transformation for Deloitte Canada.

"In the past, it was more about consistent, efficient and effective performance, so people knew what to expect," she said. "Now, it's about leaders helping you interpret disruption, and helping teams respond quickly."

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A majority of Canadian business leaders, however, feel unprepared to lead the organization of the future. According to Deloitte Canada's 2017 Human Capital Trends report, only 25 per cent consider themselves prepared to develop the leadership skills they need to tackle the challenges associated with the age of disruption, well below the global average of 39 per cent. Those that do, however, have a number of traits in common, explains Ms. Morican.

"It's not about how they command and control based on those historic demands for efficiency and effectiveness," she said. "It's about how they work across a network of people, how they're able to influence stakeholders, how they're able to collaborate both inside and outside of the organization."

In other words, today's most successful leaders are those that break down traditional barriers, seek outside opinions and are prepared to adapt and evolve quickly. Those that continue to exemplify more traditional leadership values, however, often find themselves in compromising situations.

One leader, for example, who was the founder of a major tech company, "sucked all the air out of the room when he entered, and ultimately did not use outside voices to effectively run the company," said Hart Hillman, the founder and chief executive officer of the BigWin Group, a Toronto-based global executive-search and talent-strategy firm. "[He] held many of the patents of the company, he was a truly great founder, but he was a very strong personality, and people were often not heard because his voice was so loud."

There was a time and place when such overbearing confidence and bravado would have been considered highly valuable, but in the age of digital disruption leaders are most effective when they can admit to the shortcomings of their own expertise, and seek outside help.

Mr. Hillman explains that there is a term often used in the executive-search community to refer to leaders that are unable to seek outside help when their duties surpass their capabilities. "'Founderitis' basically means that the founder of an organization often doesn't know when they've hit their level of competency; they don't know when they don't know what they don't know," he explains.

Mr. Hillman adds that this failing may be the culprit behind the continuing controversies at Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier. The company – which recently saw its former executive chairman, Pierre Beaudoin, step down – found itself in hot water after announcing a controversial plan to increase executive compensation at a time of mass layoffs and taxpayer bailouts.

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"Founderitis can be even more complicated when it's a family-run business," Mr. Hillman said. "There's such a reverence for the family and the family view that the outside voices are muted or modified to the point where they can't speak up."

By contrast, Mr. Hillman points to Rogers Communications Inc. as an example of a Canadian organization whose family-run leadership had come to terms with its own limitations.

"I think they've been really, really smart in bringing in Joe [Natale]," he said. "He's your typical new-style CEO; incredibly nice, doesn't have to be the loudest voice in the room, captures information from a wide variety of sources, doesn't like people who just give him 'yes' answers and won't insulate himself with a bunch of sycophants." The telecommunications giant's hire also exemplifies an understanding that no matter the size, every company – and especially those in the technology space – is susceptible to sudden disruption.

"In the traditional business model, even though you can argue that there are disruptions coming at you all time, it's not as fast and significant as tech disruption," said Guo Xiao, the president and chief executive officer of ThoughtWorks, a global technology consultancy. "I think it was in the eighties when the concept of a sustainable competitive advantage was raised; you would build a new service, offering or product, you build barriers to entry around it, and with that you secure yourself with five, 10, 20 years of sustainable competitive advantage."

Today, however, Mr. Xiao argues that one has to assume that disruption is always around the corner, whether from competitors, startups or players in adjacent industries. "So instead of relying on one big strategy that will win, try to continue to work on the strategy intermittently," he said. "Instead of building competitive advantages you need to build agility into the organization, so it can adapt to the market faster."

Agility, he explains, does not come easy in a traditional top-down leadership structure. Instead, modern organizations need to develop multidisciplinary teams and prepare them to adapt quickly when the next disruption inevitably arrives.

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