The need for effective leadership in the face of disruptive, large-scale change is
fresh in our minds. COVID-19 took us from staying home for two weeks to a global pandemic
overnight, launching us into a new future, ready or not.
Today, as the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, its effects linger well beyond
health implications. Connecting remotely for work, school and socializing has become
part of everyday life, with little reason to doubt this is the new normal. The core
structures of society — government, business, education, nonprofits — have all been
History provides endless examples of the natural, social and technological worlds
imposing themselves on taken-for-granted routines and processes. Yet we need not look
back any further than the past few years to appreciate the speed and force with which
our lives can be flipped upside down. Will we learn from this and take action to build
our future, or remain focused on short-term horizons and allow the future to be imposed
Any domain in which disruptive, large-scale change is emerging provides us an opportunity
to make a choice about building our future rather than having it imposed upon us.
The impact of artificial intelligence is just such a disruptive change. Algorithms
and machine intelligence have already entered our lives and are embedded in, for instance,
social media, online shopping and commonly used apps like Uber and Waze.
AI’s presence has recently entered the common conversation, mostly due to the accessibility
of ChatGPT, the application that’s as easy to use as a Google search. Questions regarding
the impact of AI have proliferated rapidly. What will it do to education? What facets
of the workforce will be replaced by machines? What about privacy, security, health
Such questions only scratch the surface, though, when it comes to the potential for
machine intelligence. It is possible that no part of our lives will go untouched.
The choices we are faced with today in relation to AI are comparable to the ones we
were facing before the pandemic. We can either innovate and find ways to integrate
AI into our lives, building our future, or allow its disruptive force to dictate our
future for us. The foundation for taking charge of our future comes through an understanding
of and practical approach to the roles of disruption, innovation and leadership (DIL).
Understanding these factors requires an appreciation of their interconnectedness and
Disruption sends seismic waves through society, shaking up norms and processes and
leading to transformative change with broad technological, social and economic implications.
The power of disruption lies in its ability to drive evolution and progress. From
COVID-19 response strategies to climate change adaptation, synthetic biology and the
proliferation of accessible AI platforms, these innovations are shaping our society
at an exponential rate. The pandemic triggered a massive upheaval, but this should
not be considered a threat. Instead, disruption should be seen as an opportunity to
inspire innovation and advancement.
In the world of technology, disruption has played a crucial role in transforming paradigms.
Digital technology, for example, has fundamentally altered how we communicate and
exchange information, changing the media, retail and advertising industries. Now,
AI stands on the brink of another revolution, capable of reshaping many fields by
automating routine tasks, enhancing health care through predictive diagnostics and
giving rise to new forms of engagement and service delivery in education, public services
Besides technological changes, disruption also deeply affects our sociocultural fabric.
The internet has redefined human interaction, creating global connections and raising
concerns about privacy and cyberbullying. As AI and automation integrate into societal
structures, they bring change, reconfiguring employment dynamics, reshaping skill
requirements, and provoking ethical debates about data privacy, algorithmic equity
and the moral responsibility of autonomous systems.
Disruption profoundly affects the economy, offering a range of possibilities and dangers.
For example, e-commerce has already shown its capacity to disrupt the conventional
retail industry. At the same time, artificial intelligence is about to change the
job market in a revolutionary way and reshape the distribution of wealth.
While predicting disruption accurately is challenging, we can prepare for it by cultivating
key skills, adopting a strategic mindset, and fostering an adaptive organizational
culture. The critical skills to prepare for disruption include adaptability and resilience,
creativity and innovation, critical thinking, digital fluency, emotional intelligence
and a commitment to lifelong learning. The same innovative spirit that guided us through
the pandemic can now show us the potential disruptions AI poses. Rather than fearing
job losses due to AI, we should envision a world where humans and machines work together
harmoniously and create strong systems to protect data in an AI-dominated world.
We will increasingly see the expansion of the generalist versus specialist debate.
Of course, as usually happens, the correct approach will depend on context. Specialists’
deep knowledge and skills in a specific area make them invaluable in situations where
high expertise is needed. However, they risk becoming obsolete if their specialty
is heavily disrupted and they cannot transfer their skills. With their broader range
of skills and knowledge, generalists may find it easier to adapt to disruptions because
the breadth of their experiences to generate creative solutions allows them to switch
between different roles and tasks flexibly.
Leaders can foster this by promoting a culture of innovation, continuous learning
and cross-functional collaboration, thereby preparing their workforce for any disruption
that may come their way. We are at a pivotal moment in history comparable to the invention
of the printing press, modern agriculture and medical breakthroughs. The effects of
climate change, synthetic biology and AI have the potential to alter our society drastically.
We can either deny these changes or take control of our future and lead the way through
this disruption. We must embrace disruption as a driver of innovation, with leadership
guiding us forward.
Here is the thing about innovation: It is both a cause of disruption and the key to
Innovation is the least understood and the most widely used word in the business context
and is positioned as the panacea to all ills that face our society. However, most
innovation efforts fail, not because they are lacking in intent, but because they
lack a clear purpose, process, people and governance.
What is innovation? It is the introduction of a new idea, product, process, service
or business model that adds new value. Innovation can be of three kinds. Let us take
the example of the telephone. When the phone was introduced, it was a disruptive innovation.
It changed how we communicated, led to social, cultural, and economic structures,
and created a new world order. Then came the smartphone. It is a phone, but it is
also a multipurpose device: a camera, a torchlight and a music player.
This is an example of a transformational innovation, where an existing product was
redefined and ended up upsetting the established world order and creating new industries.
Now, we see incremental improvements in the capabilities of a smartphone: It comes
in different sizes, has faster chips and has become a health-monitoring device.
Most innovation is incremental. We would argue that incremental innovation creates
the engine for transformational and disruptive innovation.
Let us take the case of AI, which is a result of many incremental and transformational
innovations over time: large language models, text, image and voice recognition, machine
learning, robotics, high-speed networks, digital circuits, computer chips and more.
What is also worth noting is that many of these innovations were considered disruptive
at the time. The key takeaway is that the world continues the innovation cycle of
improvement, transformation and disruption, and in the process, continues to advance
the human race and create new value.
However, innovation is hard to manage, especially in organizations. Outside of the
traditional R&D process, the innovation agenda is seldom clear, yet widely practiced.
This results in failed initiatives, frustrated employees and wasted money.
We are experiencing the same with AI. Absent a clear agenda and mandate, there is
a hodgepodge of initiatives emerging all over organizations, some propelled by curiosity
and good intentions, others by the hubris of business leaders, and more peddled by
fearmongers. It is, therefore, important to manage innovation with a clear agenda
and supporting process, people and governance. And that requires strong leadership.
It is the leadership that has the responsibility to create clarity of purpose around
innovation, set a clear innovation agenda with pragmatic milestones and create teams
to deliver on that agenda. And then become leader coaches. This requires our leaders
to develop change agility and a learning and coaching mindset.
Effective leadership is always central to group or organizational success but takes
on even greater importance during times of change, as we’re now seeing with the presence
of AI. Leaders who recognize the inevitability of disruption and see AI as a technological
development to be integrated into our lives will provide a service far greater than
those who attempt to block or stop it, an effort as futile as attempting to stop the
use of the internet.
Too often, efforts to identify successful leaders have produced little more than preferences
for leadership styles or judgments about personal charisma. Yet, it is not hard to
come up with examples of successful leaders who showed very different styles or who
were not necessarily charismatic.
Think of the difference between President Kennedy’s inspiring declaration that the
U.S. would land on the moon in less than 10 years and Gandhi’s peaceful but powerful
stance in leading India’s independence from British rule. Other than their respective
effectiveness and ultimate success, there was arguably little overlap in terms of
personalities or leadership styles. It seems we are better served by embracing leaders
who speak directly to a vision for building our future than to those who fit an image
of what a successful leader looks like.
Providing a vision is more than simply imagining an endpoint, no matter how clear
or convincing it appears. Competent leaders integrate both current and emerging environmental
demands with the history, values and current practices of those they are leading.
They present a future that is innovative yet accessible; the collective needs to feel
capable and motivated to build such a future for itself.
As part of providing direction that values the power of AI, effective leaders will
need to facilitate broad-ranging connections and partnerships, sharing their vision
with those outside their immediate organization or community. We need leaders who
will recognize that collectives and networks hold the potential for far greater impact
than will occur through the actions of any single organization. The integration of
varying talents and resources will bring forth ideas and innovations that only occur
Of course, far-reaching interrelationships will also bring greater complexity than
would be found within single groups or organizations. Embracing this complexity and
dealing with the accompanying challenges are the very spots where our most skilled
and competent leaders will focus. Prioritizing connections will set the basis for
innovative thought and action, and will characterize our next generation of leaders,
those guiding us through the emergence of the AI era.
The DIL Triad
Disruption, innovation and leadership have been a constant of human civilization.
This triad is the wheel of human evolution and is more than the sum of its parts.
At times, disruption has been forced upon us, whether it was the bubonic plague, the
financial meltdown, the world wars or COVID-19. It took strong leadership and an innovative
mindset to build a human condition that was better than what we were before. Similarly,
in times of peace, innovations such as the steam engine, the printing press, the personal
computer, the internet and smart devices have disrupted the normal, creating a new
normal, and leaders worldwide have maintained a world order where such innovation
could thrive. At the same time, Alexander the Great, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela
and many others have taken it on themselves to drive change that has disrupted existing
world orders and unleashed new structures that have given rise to new sets of innovations
in political and economic structures. We can be confident that the disruption, innovation
and leadership cycle will continue to shape the human future. AI is the latest one.
Our choice: recognize, prepare and participate in shaping the future or allow it to
impose itself upon us.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of In the Lead magazine, from Buccino Leadership Institute. The bi-annual magazine focuses on leadership perspectives from the field of health
care, with content that is curated from leaders across the industry who share lessons
learned from real-world experiences.
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