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Becoming a Disruptive IT Leader Without Alienating Staff and Colleagues

Everybody loves tech visionaries, at least until they begin launching impossible strategies and making absurd demands. That’s why it’s important to know that even disruption has limitations.

John Edwards

December 12, 2023

4 Min Read
Illustration of fish following a different leader.
marcos alvarado via Alamy Stock

At a Glance

  • Rule-breaking leaders can find success but also risk turning off team members.
  • Finding a balance with by including a diverse set of voices can make disruption a win-win.
  • Disruptive leaders need to focus on the big picture to allay fears.

Disruptive leaders strongly believe in rule-breaking and questioning the status quo. These individuals are committed to bold, innovative action, and thinking outside the box. The problem is, some disruptive leaders become too dedicated to the approach, resulting in confusion and frustration. As a result, they find themselves losing team and management support, and in the process, inadvertently transforming themselves into ineffectual leaders.

Driving transformation is hard and there isn’t a playbook, says Jason Birmingham, CTO at financial technology company Broadridge Financial Solutions in an email interview. “Leaders have to know when and how to push and, maybe more importantly, when not to push,” he explains. “Transformation requires IT leaders to have multiple tools, as well as the wisdom and knowledge to know when to use each of them.”

Implementing a disruptive initiative isn’t easy. “Anything a leader can do to build a following and shared vision tends to pay off down the road,” says Ron Ash, chief operating officer with consulting firm Accenture Federal Services via email. “This approach also allows you to learn about what will motivate others to follow you along the innovation journey, even when things get challenging.”

Going Overboard

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Disruptive leaders can become too heavy-handed and close-minded, observes Shelli Brunswick, chief operating officer of the Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization, that advocates for the global space industry. “This not only demoralizes a team as they operate within a culture of fear but stamps out creativity and potentially shuts down innovative thoughts and ideas, setting projects back,” she says via email.

Another risk is losing situational awareness. “Transformations are dynamic, requiring IT leaders to constantly reassess the state of stakeholders and the team,” Birmingham says. “Sticking to the same script when change is required often leads to leaders losing touch with the team.”

Disruptive leaders tend to think several steps ahead, which can make it appear they’re cutting corners or executing by instinct. “If leaders don’t take the time to explain their rationale, it can be perceived as going overboard,” Ash says. “It’s important to offer data and evidence for why the disruptive changes are being planned, and to solicit feedback from those who will be impacted.”

Reaching an Effective Balance

IT leaders should surround themselves with a diverse set of voices spanning a range of perspectives to help them work through any potential blind spots, Ash advises. “Being open and receptive to a variety of viewpoints will help an IT leader strike the right balance.”

Related:Do Women IT Leaders Face a Glass Cliff?

Ash also recommends focusing on outcomes and value. It’s important to align people around a shared mission and vision. “Begin with the end state’ in mind,” he says. “From there, keep the direction and messaging simple and concrete.”

Strive to be inspirational, Brunswick suggests. “Give people a mission they can get behind, whether it’s doing their part to make a system safer or helping to build a world-changing technology.” An inspirational leader motivates people, she notes, allowing disruption to become a rallying cry rather than something to fear.

Birmingham advises breaking change into small increments. Small changes made consistently tend to be easier to manage, easier to adopt, and less risky. “Additionally, IT leaders will get invaluable feedback on their strategy and what needs to change to make it more effective.”

Build an open environment in which people feel comfortable discussing what’s working and what needs to change, Birmingham says. “Focus on tapping into each level of the organization and really focus on feeling the pulse of the organization.”

Disruption often leads to team confusion, doubt, and job loss fears. “Leaders need to create a big-picture story,” says Tanvir Khan, chief digital and strategy officer for IT service and consulting company NTT Data via email. “This approach is effective because it prioritizes transparency and authenticity,” he explains. “You’ve acknowledged the pros and cons, ‘the elephant in the room’, rather than minimizing the concerns.” Helping team members feel heard ensures that everyone can refocus and align to the new mission.

Related:IT Leaders as Advocates for Continual Change

Final Points

Transformation is a skill, Birmingham observes. “IT Leaders who are successful at driving large-scale transformations have experience both in terms of how to motivate and lead staff but also how to manage change.”

Being a leader in today’s ever-changing IT landscape is exciting, yet also a challenge. “If leaders take the time to create and communicate the big-picture story with teams, they may find it easier to get support and buy-in while building trust and alleviating anxieties,” Khan says.

About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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