Fellow Executives, It’s Time to Disrupt Ourselves

By Haresh Khoobchandani, CEO of iProperty Singapore and Malaysia

Great leaders are strong, bold, brave, and a host of other flattering adjectives—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t absolutely petrified of change from time to time.

Take the night-before-battle scene of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the English troops—outnumbered five to one by the French—have picked up on King Henry’s fear and are now somewhat terrified themselves. Henry overhears them worrying around their campfires, and the next morning, he spins that fear into an iconic speech that stirs his soldiers to action and victory.

Every corporate battle also has its tense “night before,” when employees can easily sense a leader’s nervousness about a coming strategy change or tectonic shift in the industry. Yet while change management literature is full of studies that focus on resistance to change in employees, there are far fewer that discuss such fears in leaders. That’s a glaring omission. As Henry V knew, a leader’s fear can be infectious, and even paralyzing, if left unchecked in times of change.

Why do executives and managers hold out on embracing change that seems so obviously necessary? They’re afraid of what I like to call personal disruption—the proactive shift required to cope with today’s lightning-fast rate of change. I’m not talking about a shift in mindset, but about taking actual, tangible actions, rather than adopting a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” attitude. (Spoiler alert: at the rate tech is changing, it will be broken soon enough.) High-level executives in particular are often conservative by nature, and shy away from taking big risks with uncertain payoffs. Unfortunately, for most of them, today’s economy puts them in a situation where they must adapt or face obsolescence.

The good news is, even the most reluctant executives and managers can learn to embrace change, deliberately disrupt themselves, and lean in to the fear. The end result can even be magical: iconic leadership experiences that your team remembers for decades. All you have to do is accept a few simple facts—no iconic speech-giving required.

  1. Disruption is coming for you. Shockingly, some of the executives I coach still ask me whether digital transformation isn’t just a trend or "old wine in a new bottle." This is a trend across industries: the 2017 study by the Global Center for Digital Transformation found that only 31 percent of executives say their organization is actively responding to digital disruption, and 40 percent don’t think that their leaders are responding correctly or even understand the threat at all. If an executive or manager wants to successfully ride the waves of change, he or she first of all has to accept that it’s happening—and that it’s important to the continuing success of his or her business.
  2. Go against nature. Change management literature often suggests ways to mitigate the disruptiveness of change for reluctant employees, for instance by suggesting that it is simply a matter of shifting routines. But executives and managers don’t have the luxury of pretending change is less far-reaching than it is. They’re in the driver’s seat, and need to look clearly at the road ahead—a road that often lacks clear signposts. (Sometimes your troops really are outnumbered five to one.) This requires an odd shift in both mindset and action: you have to deliberately disrupt yourself, and then you have to go out and do things differently. Of course, it’s human nature to cling reactively to the status quo. But in order to thrive during times of change, you’ve got to not just be willing to get disrupted, but you may have to actively disrupt yourself by pushing yourself out of your comfort zones, learning to cope with instability, or even picking up a handful of futuristic new skills.
  3. It’s okay not to know everything. Human beings are wired to prefer certainty over unpredictability, but we’ve known for years that adopting a “growth mindset,” as per Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, is more beneficial than assuming outcomes are already fixed. Still, we tend to choose certainty. In an interview with Scientific American, neurologist Richard Burton suggests our lust for certainty could even approach the level of an addiction: after all, the thrill of correctly predicting outcomes triggers the same rewards systems in the brain as does alcohol, nicotine, and cocaine. Unfortunately, in times of great change, we have to forgo these rewards—at least for a while—and accept that we are heading into the unknown. Just like the night before a big battle, times of change require a girding of the loins and a courageous leap of faith.
  4. Don’t fight the fear; embrace it. In Henry V’s speech, he gave his troops an option to simply… go home. It was that safety valve—and that acknowledgment that fear is real—that made his troops so emboldened and ready to fight. Thankfully, you’re not sending your employees into a life or death situation, but it’s important to create a space where fear and failure are options (to a reasonable degree, of course). Innovative tech organizations including Google have found that fostering an environment of psychological safety is vital for creating a culture of experimentation. And the best thing a manager can do to foster that environment is accept the possibility of failure not just for their teams, but for themselves.

In short, proactive personal disruption isn’t optional for executives. It’s tempting to believe that you can “weather the storm” of disruption without making any major changes to your way of thinking, but I’m here to tell you that is simply not the case. The change rippling through all sectors of the economy today is both too broad and too deep for anyone with a management career to escape. Sometimes you’ve got to stay up all night and show up before your team exhausted, vulnerable, and ready to do things differently.

Photo by Heng Films on Unsplash

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