Leadership in the age of disruption

Many leaders struggle to feel equipped in this age of disruption, where business models are quickly evolving, technology advancements emerge, and digital transformation changes the way we work, says Chris Underwood. He explores the leadership behaviours required to successfully navigate a disruptive landscape including communication skills, emotional intelligence (EQ), curiosity and an appetite for risk

We are living in an age of disruption. At the beginning of the year, this meant ever-changing and evolving business practices due to emerging new technologies and digital capabilities transforming the way we work.

The very nature of a disruptive environment means that leaders need to be prepared to react to and adapt to the unknown and never has this been truer than in the current climate.

We have long spoken about the effect of digital innovation on executive decision making but digital is no longer the reserve of roles such as chief digital, technology, or product officers, but central to every department across the organisation. This has become more apparent with teams working fully remotely and businesses changing their operations to work within the new ‘normal’. The ability to adapt and exploit technology and data at this time has helped businesses to quickly shift in response to challenging and different conditions.

Leaders are always at the forefront of transformation and optimization and will therefore need to embrace opportunities and minimise risks presented by disruption. While they may not be able to foresee and prepare for these challenges, leaders equipped with the right leadership behaviours will be able to achieve success.

Developing leaders primed for disruption

Digital transformation has been introducing new ways of working and changing professional interactions for some time. While the pandemic has certainly sped up the uptake of digital and remote working by many organisations, digital innovation will continue to shape how they operate. PwC anticipates that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the biggest commercial opportunity for organisations in the next decade. According to Sizing the Prize Global AI Report from PwC is expected to grow the UK economy by £232 billion by 2030.

However, there is a growing concern that many organisations are not yet digitally mature enough to capitalise on innovations such as automation. McKinsey predicts that by 2030, more than 10 million workers in the UK might be under-skilled in digital, decision making and communication, fundamental skills for modern leaders.

To avoid a skills gap, businesses need to work together with educational institutions to upskill individuals and provide them with an understanding of the digital economy as well as softer skills. Investing in ongoing development is crucial to retaining talented individuals and also wider business success.

It is too early to assess the value developed leaders have brought their businesses during the economic and physical challenges presented by national lockdown. However, beyond the current situation, developed leaders offer demonstrable benefits to an organisation. They are more likely to retain and build lasting relationships with customers but also engage teams, with employee retention 20 times better at organisations who focus on leadership, according to the report High-Impact Leadership, from Bersin by Deloitte.

Those who have adapted well to the new environment will also reap the loyalty and unity of groups who have bonded through challenging, changing and stressful times together.

Assesssing leadership behaviours

Many leaders don’t feel equipped to decide how to react to disruption and find it difficult to know where to focus efforts. While there are many characteristics that define good leaders, these will vary depending on organisation type, sector and what is required from their role. Therefore, when planning development, it is important to assess leadership behaviours and attitudes within the context of successful outcomes.

Key leadership behaviours include the ability to build trust, create and share vision, adaptability, the potential to influence others and the fortitude to overcome challenges. Exploring these behaviours within the frame of an individual leader’s purpose will form the basis of a development plan. 

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is invaluable in business and leadership as it supports relationship building, collaboration and also understanding others.

A leader’s EQ is critical to adapting to the role of leading a team of remote workers successfully, when team members span different locations, the sense of community and fellowship can be quickly lost. A proactive communication via different platforms is required to help stay and remain connected. A leader with a developed EQ will know instinctively the need to incorporate social talk into a meeting to replace the informal day-to-day conversation of the office and will know instinctively to build a sense of belonging and team spirit through the shared experiences of change.

EQ also helps leaders to influence stakeholders and secure investments by speaking the right language of business outcomes and develop the Collective Intelligence (CQ) of the team. In times of crisis, the ability to show compassion and empathy can also go a long way to how individuals, and businesses as a whole, are perceived among their customers and employees.


Leading teams in different locations, which increasingly encompasses remote workers as well as regional offices, requires more communication to avoid losing a sense of community, team and fellowship. Technological advancements and greater collaboration tools together with cultural and organisational changes will see more work being conducted virtually.  

A more proactive approach to contact will help to simulate the casual conversations that take place in the physical workplace. In the same way, prioritising video calls over emails and text-based chat, enables face-to-face interaction with team members, helping everyone to feel connected.


Often overlooked, curiosity is greatly important for modern enterprise as leaders are more likely to investigate innovation and react quickly to change and uncertainty. Curious leaders seek to understand people’s behaviour as well as how and why things work. In turn, this inspires their teams and encourages every member to contribute ideas.

An appetite for risk

To survive rapid change leaders will need to test new practices quickly without fearing failure. To create an environment conducive to ‘failing fast and learning quickly’, businesses need to value the knowledge unlocked during the process as much as getting a successful result.

Final thoughts

Charles Darwin’s conclusions about the evolution of species will resonate with many leaders: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.’

Rapid technological changes, unforeseen market changes and disruptive business models are inevitable. While specific technical skills will rise and fall in importance, depending on the newest developments, if senior executives are armed with adaptive leadership skills, business success will follow.

It remains the leaders’ task to initiate transformation and see it through to ensure their businesses prosper. Central to business survival and growth, all senior managers and C-level executives must develop technology know-how with adaptive leadership skills to navigate their organisation to success.

Chris Underwood is Managing Director at Adastrum Consulting. With more than 20 years’ experience in executive search and leadership talent advisory, Chris established Adastrum Consulting in 2009. His approach uses integrated talent management to support business transformation.

His latest white paper, The D Suite: Digital, Data and Disruption in 2020 and Beyond, is available to download now.

Find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisunderwood/

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