The emergence of the Disruptive Leader


Didier Marlier

April 01, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

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Eight years ago, when I was referring to the “Disruption Economy”, most of the audience hadn’t heard about it, some were sceptical and the rest was listening with polite interest. In September 2016, when speaking in São-Paulo to an audience of 500 CEO’s, I asked if anyone needed an explanation about the Disruption Economy and who was sceptical about it taking place… Not a single hand showed up. We have entered the era of Disruption.

Not a single CEO nor executive amongst us may claim to have a clear idea about a World where sudden technological disruptions (Mobility, Social, Epigenetic, Internet of Things, Big data, Cognitive/ Artificial intelligence, Blockchain, 3D printing…) emerge everyday, profoundly affecting Society and business models. Some may pretend to know and will continue business as usual and some of us honestly admit that we don’t know.

Progress can’t/shouldn’t be stopped… and some of its potentially damaging consequences can’t be ignored and will demand that we profoundly reinvent capitalism and society. Pursuing the solitary route of “winning alone” is a dangerous illusion. The Future expects a radical shift in mindset, ecosystems, values and legislation.

So how can we lead and decide in such a never seen before environment where most of our reference points disappear day after day? Meanwhile, can we afford not to lead and sit on our hands, waiting to have full clarity on what the Future and technology are preparing for us? Disruptive leaders need to take a stand and be more strategic than their tactical counterparts, who are still focused on narrow industries or market segments. Disruptive leaders differ from their traditional colleagues on three points:

  • They create a collective intelligence that goes way beyond theirs (The phasing out of the Specialist/Content Leadership): In a World where so many new technologies are emerging and require an amazing understanding and capacity to detect how they will interact, impact our way of life and businesses and how we could benefit from it, it seems illusory that one or a few leaders would be capable of relying on their superior knowledge or expertise to decide. Collective intelligence, harnessing the power of your networks, creating an intelligent organization, leading from the back and context leadership are new skills to master for “Disruptive Leaders”. For sure there will still be amazing, bold and radical content leaders and visionaries such as Steve Jobs was or Elon Musk seems to be today. But their style creates dependency and alignment behind their ideas. And this will not work in businesses who need more than one brain functioning at the top to succeed.
  • They install credibility with their stakeholders (“Trust is the new currency!”): That quote of Business Futurist, Gerd Leonhard, captures so many aspects of what changes in leadership. Why are a Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage (the man behind Brexit) such threats to the existing political establishment? They convince people that they will do what they say! Disruptive leaders will pay attention at walking the talk (which may cost some of the above to soon be in trouble…) Trust, the new currency? Look at blockchain, Tripadvisor, and the hundreds of other sites who sell a service freely provided by their members, who give feedback on their experience with such or such organization. A way we will soon recognize plagiarists, seizing the new technologies to use them at their benefit but still behaving and thinking 1.0, from the true “Disruptive Leaders”, will be their ethics and capacity to align their Ethos (actions) with their Logos (words).
  • Engage their people (The Search for Meaning): In a World where many references fade out, the capacity of a leader to provide meaning, to engage people and mobilize them emotionally will be crucial. Individual knowledge increasingly becomes a commodity. Think of IBM’s Watson Artificial Intelligence program which is already better than oncologists in diagnosing cancer on patients or solves complicated legal issues better than professional lawyers… Intelligence will become commoditized! The capacity to engage through emotions, speak to the part of the brains that move people from intention to action will increasingly be what makes a difference.

Not knowing, having lost our references, being unsure, dealing with ambiguity and volatility (the good old V.U.C.A., Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous) are no excuses for lack of leadership.

I was watching this movie yesterday and found that Charlie Chaplin had already spread a similar message in 1940. I found it particularly relevant and actual.

Since the beginning of 2017, our clients and the MBAs we work on, seem to realize that, if everything else changes around people, we will need to seriously question our beliefs about leadership and reinvent what leading in the Disruption Economy means. We are ready to explore the Future of Leadership with you, if you are interested…

Enjoy your leadership journey.


  1. Marcelo

    I believe if industry and corporations want to replicate the benefits in dealing and learning from transformational leadership to society, it is time to contribute preparing/encouraging/supporting/delivering new leaders to take active part in the political process/world. The lack of political leadership prepared to recognize VUCA´s environment all around the world is absolutely frightening.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Marcelo… I must say that Business is way ahead of politics and sports when it comes to such things… Sadly. Thank you for this stand you are taking, take care Didier


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