Five ways to foster courageous leadership for digital disruption

What is the biggest problem facing today’s enterprises, even greater than executing on a digital-first strategy? A lack of courageous leadership.

Across the spectrum of companies, from financial institutions to large retailers, it is more important than ever for executives to be courageous. Without such leaders, organisations will falter in their quest to adapt to the digital revolution and profit from new technologies.

Unfortunately, many business leaders are not equipped to act decisively, the hallmark of courageous leadership. Why? I believe at the core, too many executives lack the cognitive understanding of the real pace of change in their own businesses. Without that understanding, executives rely on an outdated business model.

Here’s how that plays out: The classic executive archetype of the recent past is an MBA-holder, schooled in a traditional leadership approach. At the start of this approach, you create strategy. Then, you plan; next, you execute. After that, you gather feedback – then you replan.

That doesn’t work anymore because the cycle between plan, build, execute and gather feedback moves at the speed of light. Consider that Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, writing in their 2014 book Big Bang Disruption, found that disruptive innovations that previously took more than ten years to change an entire industry now can do so in half the time – and that time is even shrinking.

> See also: How to get more women on the journey to technology leadership: two female IT leaders speak up

That’s hard – for everyone – but virtually impossible for traditional managers. The good news is that courageous executives can be cultivated, and senior leaders – at all organisations – must make it a priority to imbue the following attributes into their leadership ranks:

No. 1: Get comfortable with digital disruption

In many ways, this tenant is really a focus on enterprise transformation. Business leaders must experiment constantly and encourage enterprise change. 'Fail fast and iterate' takes on a new meaning in today’s hyper-competitive and ever-changing marketplace. All organisations can learn to do so, regardless of their size or history.

Consider ThoughtWorks' work with Woolworth’s, Australia’s largest grocery store. The organisation needed to find a way to experiment with new ideas, and ThoughtWorks helped them build an innovation lab in their grocery stores, to test out new ways to serve their customers or prototype new products.

Getting real-time results allowed the teams to pivot when the data came through and even champion new ideas – such as a digital meal planner around the popular organic roasted chicken. By figuring out ways to fail fast, this organisation actually succeeded.

No. 2: Practice expansive thinking

This is one of the most important aspects of being a forward-thinking executive. As the demands of businesses grow, executives have tended to focus on learning more information.

That means more information about their clients’ businesses, human capital strategies and innovative advances in the broader community. But even more important than the knowledge of these issues is the practice of thinking expansively.

By that, I mean the act of looking at problems, issues or opportunities from multiple vantage points, at the same time. Why is this so vital? That’s because practicing expansive thinking is the only way to effectively connect the dots in business challenges, in real time, when decisive action is needed. By practicing expansive thinking, business leaders can build their confidence to act bravely and decisively.

No. 3: Develop dynamic, forward-looking teams

Diverse teams are vital to successful businesses, and courageous executives must be able to build the right people with diverse backgrounds. That means more women, more people from outside your home country, more people of different ages (often, that means more young people on teams).

By tapping into the insights from all groups of people, business executives can expand their world view – which is part of practicing expansive thinking (see above).

No. 4: Challenge conventional thinking

Stories of successful businesses are littered with examples of people going against the grain (think Microsoft, Apple). But it is hard, in many organisations, to go against conventional thinking, especially when many of the leaders come from the same MBA background and have been trained to approach problems in the same way.

> See also: 6 ways to overcome digital disruption paralysis

A great inspirational motivator is US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the first female technologists. Throughout her career, she challenged conventional thinking, which is what courageous executives must also do.

One of her most famous sayings is, 'The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.' As leaders, we continue to challenge ourselves, and the external world, by asking what the value proposition is, where we can actually add value, and whether we are on the right path to achieve our goals.

No. 5: Admit uncertainty and seek advice

You can usually tell when someone is moving toward being a courageous executive because they ask for help. Showing vulnerability by asking for help humanises leaders and can encourage their team to ask for help as well!

To succeed, organisations must recognise that there is no end game to innovation. Leaders must be what we term 'serial innovators', people who are fearless in the face of unprecedented change and can provide bold answers.

By focusing on the attributes of courageous leaders, everyone can develop the tenacity to continuously innovate. For those people, the business model is to create, deliver, rinse and repeat. Every single day. 

Sourced from Craig Gorsline, President and COO, ThoughtWorks

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...