Shaking things up can be a good thing in business. Just look at Uber. The rideshare company changed the way people thought about transportation, not to mention opened doors for people seeking side gigs. Yet not all disruptions have happy endings, especially if leaders aren’t ready to view the world through a disruptive lens.
Take Blockbuster’s spectacular demise. Though popular culture says that Netflix slew the Blockbuster dragon, a 2022 CNBC deep dive reveals what really happened. Blockbuster had the chance to work with Netflix. The problem was, Blockbuster’s leaders didn’t view things from a disruptive angle, at least not at first. By the time they woke up to the realization that they had to make big pivots, they were already behind and carrying debt. The outcome of the Blockbuster-Netflix matchup, as everyone who used to carry a plastic Blockbuster membership card knows, was Netflix 1, Blockbuster 0.
It’s easy for entrepreneurs to see in hindsight that Blockbuster’s executive team members were stuck in their ways. However, it’s much harder for business owners to recognize their shortcomings when it comes to being disruptive. If you’re set on disrupting a la Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you can’t be shy about setting yourself up for success. You can start by applying some of these self-development strategies to your leadership process.
1. Build your thirst for knowledge.
One thing about all disruptive leaders is that they’re lifelong learners. They aren’t afraid to admit that they don’t know everything. But they’re not content with staying in the dark, either. On the contrary, disruptive leaders have a hunger for education. Sure, some of them may drop out of college or eschew formal learning. Nevertheless, they’re not too proud to build their acumen in other ways.
Amanda Dixon, co-founder and CEO of mergers and acquisitions firm Barney, is a self-professed disruptor. Dixon believes that the key to not getting stuck in place is to always be inventing and innovating. “To lead creatively, you have to make something new,” she says. “That means questioning the status quo in your space — not just about what services you offer and how you provide them, but also about who you are, how you conduct yourself, and how you treat your team and customers. Strengthen your disruptive thinking by studying industries that have been transformed or are in the process of transforming.”
Other ways to grow your knowledge bank include reading inspirational books, listening to podcasts, and attending informational conferences and webinars. Aim to learn something new every day to spice up your mental dexterity.
2. Embrace untried solutions.
You can’t be a disruptive leader until you’re open to the idea of jettisoning solutions, particularly the ones you create or like. According to Andrea Tang, global director of talent attraction at ZX Ventures, being able to be solutions-agnostic is a key to honing a disruptive mindset. Notes Tang, “One thing we look for is people who fall in love with the problem and not the solution. They’re really out chasing that consumer problem and have the ability to pivot and not get stuck in their ego.”
Being able to drop what seems like a winning solution can be tough. After all, it’s human nature to resist change. Yet being too comfortable can fly in the face of disruption. Unless and until you can say goodbye to the wrong answers (even if they were right once upon a time), you won’t reach your disruptive leadership potential.
The point is that you need to give yourself permission to ask, “Is this really the best we can do?” or “Is this the direction that’s needed at the moment?” Not until you’ve thought of all possibilities should you be willing to pick one. And if you discover you’re on the wrong path, you have to be strong enough to retrace your steps to choose a better direction.
3. Surround yourself with like-minded professionals.
Though many disruptive leaders are known for being loners, you don’t have to disrupt in isolation. There’s nothing wrong with forging a network of like-minded people. For example, you may want to hire disruptive-leaning professionals to fill leadership roles at your company. Or you may want to form business friendships with other disruptive leaders.
Having other disruptive leaders in your life can be a huge asset. You can lean on them when you need advice. Plus, you can find out what disruptions have worked for them. Who knows? A disruptive process that works at another company may be well-suited for yours, too. You may even want to ask one of your support system members to hold you accountable for disruptive leadership. That way, you’ll have someone else alerting you if you begin to veer off course.
As a leader, you’re in a great position to initiate industry disruption. You just have to prep yourself first.