The dangerous disruptor myth (and why I don't subscribe to it)

In our tech-driven economy, Silicon Valley has been the epitome of entrepreneurship; a beacon of innovation and disruption, bringing new products and services to market as fast as they can be financed. However, the recent resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has generated a huge amount of less than positive discussion – about founders, start-ups and leadership in general.

There seems to have been a flurry of headlines about departing high profile CEOs, with lots of commentary on how their behaviours and the cultures they created were central to their fall from grace. 

In the Atlantic article Fixing Uber Will Require More Than Ousting Its Leader Gillian B White notes: “Uber certainly isn’t the only, or first, tech start-up with the problem of a young, brash CEO who creates a unique and disruptive product, but cannot seem to make the leap to successful management.” She refers to a New York Times article citing examples including: “Quirky, a gadget-pedalling platform that raised $185 million before being undone by the questionable behaviour of its 20-something CEO and founder, and an HR start-up called Zenefits, which was once valued at $4.5 billion but ousted its young male CEO amid criticisms about the company’s frat-like culture and allegations that the company had engaged in cheating on licensing courses.”

This worrying trend has made me wonder, do we tolerate poor behaviour from those we consider ‘innovators’ because we see it as the price we have to pay for their brilliance?

In his article The scientific explanation for why so many CEO’s act like jerks organisational psychologist and author Nick Tasler notes: “Too many entrepreneurs and innovators continue to fall prey to the Steve Jobs myth — the idea that some people are just so brilliant that they don’t need to concern themselves with others’ feelings, and that innovation and rudeness necessarily go hand-in-hand.”

This is not a new concept – way back in the early 1990s when I worked in advertising, the same dynamic often existed between the ‘suits’ – the client facing account managers, and the ‘creatives’ who came up with the big ideas and campaigns. When I first started watching Mad Men, I was a little shocked to realise how many things still rang true with the agencies I had worked with – except it was no longer the 1950s.  

That’s not to say that all agencies operate that way – far from it – just like not all startups have the ‘bro culture’ identified in the New York Times opinion piece Jerks and the start-ups they ruin.  But in many organisations, this dynamic does exist – from the tension between sales groups and their internal business partners to the famous athlete and their support team, we seem to accept a level of brash, arrogant, sometimes petulant behaviour simply because of the high profile role these individuals have.

Tasler agrees there is a link, and this is certainly what many of us believe, between a ‘personality trait of agreeableness’ (often associated with a Transformational Leader) and a ‘negative relationship with successful innovation’. We believe true innovators and disruptors need to not care what other people think and will do what they must to achieve an outcome.  But, as Tasler notes, “The link is a weak one. There are plenty of successful innovators who aren’t jerks. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn, and Shantanu Narayen of Adobe all have an impressive 95% or higher approval rating from their company’s employees.”

This ‘weak link’ just does not reflect the brilliant disruptors, who are also great leaders, that I work with every day. Whilst I do see examples of poor behaviour in organisations from start-ups to huge global corporates, I also see, and choose to work with, plenty of brilliant leaders where that is simply not the case. 

There is a big difference between a leader’s capability and preferred style – we all have blind spots we are working to improve in the way we interact with and lead others – and choosing to treat people poorly because we see ourselves as more ‘important’, ‘focused’ or ‘clever’ to bother ourselves with a minor detail like the humans working to make our vision a success. This is not only arrogant but extremely short-sighted. As we are already starting to see, this attitude won’t cut it in the workplace of the future. 

As Tasler states: “It’s almost impossible for a CEO to act callously toward people and still be an effective, transformational leader. The best transformational leaders have high levels of agreeableness. It is what helps CEOs and other leaders build cohesive teams.”

Culture complicity

In the New York Times article Uber Report: Eric Holder’s Recommendations for Change the report urged the re-writing of the company’s written cultural values to “reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors”. Amongst other points, it suggested adopting “values that are more inclusive and contribute to a collaborative environment, including emphasising teamwork and mutual respect, and incorporating diversity and inclusiveness as a key cultural value, not just as an end in itself, but as a fundamental aspect of doing good business.” 

It’s not just the behaviour of these single-minded creative innovators. I believe there is also a cultural expectation or myth that grows up around them and their ‘unique’ skills, that reinforces their behaviour.  

Yes, the individual needs to take accountability, but so does the ‘system’ surrounding them. When the only thing an organisation really values is the bottom line, much behaviour can be overlooked in the name of ‘results’– until said behaviour starts to impact the bottom line of course.  

The reality is, none of us can afford to overlook bad behaviour or the poor treatment of teams by those we work with. Whilst we may not initiate the culture (a fish does rot from its head), we do get to decide whether we support it. 

What got you here won’t get you there

It can be fairly clear, looking from the outside in, which teams and start-ups could potentially implode, based purely on their leadership and culture. 

The founder or leader may have taken their team to a certain, very successful, point, but the skills that got them there won’t necessarily take them to the next level. However, that’s not always the case. So, what separates the leaders who are able to continue, or who choose to step aside with the business’ best interests at heart, from those that stay at the helm and watch it implode?

The key thing that differentiates those who break past this plateau is a willingness to learn. A willingness to improve the way they lead, to listen to others both within and external to their organisation. 

Sometimes these leaders will continue at the helm. Sometimes they step aside to ensure the best possible leadership for their team. Sometimes they surround themselves with people who can support their ambitions and help them build a great culture that will deliver their vision.

As a consultant, we are often graced with a kind of ‘expert’ status, simply by being outside of the business.  Interestingly, though, many of the key improvements that need to be made – the learnings that will help to ensure a disruptor also continues to be a brilliant leader – are already well known by their teams and we work with the team to draw them out and implement positive change.

Your team works with you every day and if you can be genuinely open to hearing what they have to say (or even better – deliberately seek it out) then you’re already part way there.

Great leaders are willing to learn. They’re willing to listen. They’re willing to call out bad behaviour when they see it, and they’re willing to do the hard work it takes to build a positive, trust-based culture. 

Go ahead and disrupt and innovate away! But, please… also remember to be a great leader.

Celeste Halliday