It takes more than words to become a “Disruptive Leader”

by Didier Marlier on Friday July 23rd, 2021

I am interested in football and ice hockey as I believe that they can learn a lot from Business Teams Dynamics whilst inspiring them, in return, from a metaphorical perspective. And results come faster in sports: the next quarter’s results are the next game for sports’ coaches. So the time lag to measure the impact of strategic, cultural, tactical or motivational interventions is much shorter.

Back to the sports’ metaphor: What drew my attention, during the recent “European Championship”, was the emergence of “self-organized teams”. An increasing number of national coaches positioned themselves as favouring a sort of natural way for their teams to self-organize. The problem, as many of them have noticed since, is that it isn’t enough to claim you want self-organization from your people for it to naturally emerge!

For example, one of these coaches has had at his disposal for five years, a team that has been considered one of the top four, in the past 10 years. He miserably failed to bring them to the top spot, leave aside to the finals of the World Cup or European championship. In a recent game, which saw his team lose against a far more playful and self-organized team, it was interesting to see how his players, supposedly self-sufficient, were turning anxiously towards him to demand new marching orders as “the enemy” wasn’t behaving as per his preparation scenario… What this coach has failed to integrate is that:

  • One doesn’t change a directive culture into an enabling one through words: when for years, your leadership style has been directive, expelling competent people because you didn’t like their style, preaching all of the sudden freedom of action, taking personal risks and self-organizing, won’t happen because you say it but because you act differently. In this case, leaving the talented and daring rebels on the side and choosing the same, ageing, team of obedient usual suspects, was sending a conflicting message.
  • Many coaches, believe that self-organization means adapting to the opponent: That is the business equivalent of being “market-driven” instead of market-driving. Fabio Celestini, the recent Swiss Cup winner with a team that is far from being the bookmakers’ favourite, is feared by his opponents as they claim “never  to know how Fabio’s team will act once upon the pitch. The only information we have is that he likes to offer a nice game”. His team is built on a few principles, and like for organic teams (flock of birds or school of fishes), his players live those minimal rules and build, design, think, live and execute around those, which, indeed, makes them very unpredictable.
  • Installing a culture of unconditional support and trust is fundamental: It is an interesting paradox… Some observations in football claim that it takes a year of regular conviviality, to build a strong team. If true, this would preach in favour of a certain conservatism, “don’t change a winning team”. I oppose this to Fabio’s view: “There are no substitutes in my team, everyone is a player!” His will is to keep all players on their toes, ready to enter the pitch any time. The reason for so doing is to have an entire team feeling that they are part of the purpose and live it permanently.

But how can this be of interest to business leaders? As no one may doubt nowadays, we will have to learn to live with permanent (and hopefully not fatal) technological, biological, medical, environmental, social and geo-political disruptions.  Disruptive and self-organized entities (be they sports or business driven) have a few points in common:

  • They look more like Special Forces than the Army: their leaders have learned to move away from complicating complexity to simplifying it! How often do we still see well intend leaders, terrified by complexity, try to reign it in by “modelling uncertainties” (as I recently heard from desperate household names strategy consultants trying to hang on to old ways of thinking)? Rules, roles, procedures go well with a Clear Objectives/Proven Methods environment. They create blockages, frustration and cynicism in a Disruptive Environment. But… it takes courage, determination and vision from leaders (and from their organisations!) to move away from the traditional Command & Control model to “Leading even when I don’t know”!
  • “If you hope good weather conditions to come back: Good luck!”: is what a participant to one of our key remote learning programs told his colleagues. I think he is right. How many of us still long for clear objectives and clear methods, demand clear rules of the game and certainty, hope for the reassurance of a transparent strategy, set targets and work according to the plan? These days are over:
    • Permanent change is the new stability
    • Trial & error are the new structured approach to innovation
    • Expect the unexpected is the new mantra
    • And this all may be turned overnight, to bring us back, who knows, to a predictable and linear World.

Creativity, innovation (and growth) will continue to come from various sources (see Jay Rao’s short clip on Prediction vs Creative logic) but, should you wish to be truly disruptive, you’d better think in disruptive terms.

  • What differentiates old fashioned coaches, preaching self-organization, from a Fabio Celestini and what differentiates traditional leaders disguised as visionaries from disruptive leaders, is that the latest truly intend to create intelligent organisations:
    • They encourage their people to progress beyond their own limitations rather than control them
    • They create the conditions for their people (rather than themselves) to do and be their best
    • They ensure that their people understand the purpose of the strategy and then trust them on the ways of reaching them.

Thank you to the business and sports leaders amongst you who have inspired me with the present article. Enjoy your leadership journey.

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