Dealing with the Unexpected: Time for Disruptive Leadership

March 22, 2020
Freddie Quek

The pace of change is relentless. Digital technologies have both created exciting innovations and opportunities, but also challenges and issues that societies at all levels are still fathoming what and how to deal with. It poses an existential threat to organisations to continue to run their business and also change their business at the same time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is raising a level of consciousness that may not have been that transparent before, but fundamentally it is challenging all of humanity about our capacity to deal with the unexpected. As human beings, we like certainty, or seek comfort in the things that we know. Uncertainty brings stress. This has been the human condition that existed from the beginning of time. And it is us human beings that create, run and change organisations.

What is perhaps different is the sheer pace and scale of the challenges that we have to react to the digital disruptions and digital transformations changes in organisations. My experience of being a disruptive leader started when I was given a role to “deal with the unexpected” at Wiley. It had a profound impact on me that I started doing research in my spare time and also wrote this up as a case study with the same title for the British Academy of Management 2016 Conference.

Prior to this, I was trained and practiced being structured, organised, and strove for process excellence and maturity. I am not advocating being irresponsible and creating chaos. I am challenging myself and others to think about disrupting the status quo, and not assumed what has worked before will continue to work. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is still to be fully understood or comprehended, and I want to share my own experience of how insane things felt and happened in a very short period:

It was only one month earlier that I inherited a team that mostly worked from home, and I was asked if it was the right arrangement and if the team was productive not being in the office. My first 30-day update and assessment coincided with the UK Government’s stringent new measures to avoid going into the office. What is interesting is that the nature of the question has completely changed. If there is a world ranking of how ready teams and employees are in fully embracing working virtually, then I think my team is pretty close to being top of the list.

Here is perhaps a microcosm of how many of us deal with our personal and professional lives in just 1 week:

  • Monday – everyone in the company received news at 5pm that they should work from home until further notice
  • Tuesday – my entire team started a new working practice of having a daily virtual 15 minutes “standups” via Zoom
  • Wednesday – the entire company leadership team has our first weekly virtual meeting
  • Thursday – my children’s last day at school as they were asked not to return to school and continue via online lessons
  • Friday – my daughter has her first virtual socialisation with her school mates via Houseparty
  • Saturday – my son has his first online cello lesson
  • Sunday – my family will celebrate Mother’s Day virtually connecting from two different locations

I am sure everyone will have similar stories to tell, and the startling reality is that it will challenge everything that we used to know as normal. But before we think it is all doom and gloom, let’s embrace and rise to the challenge of helping ourselves and others. Let’s learn to deal with the unexpected. It is time to be a disruptive leader whoever we are, and at whatever roles we play to help our organisations survive this period and create a new successful future.