Traditionalist or Disruptor?

Traditionalist or Disruptor?Today’s leaders can learn a lot of lessons from the upheaval in the political environment – some highly useful, and some perhaps not to be emulated.   But one friction point that is creating a useful dialogue for reflection right now is whether it is better to defend and promote the value of traditional values, norms and ways of doing things – or conversely, to embrace disruption as a means to jar a tired old system into needed action.

This same question is infecting many companies today.  Staid old companies are debating whether it makes sense to turn things upside down to become more ‘agile’.  But it’s not a monolithic question.  Individual leaders do a lot to fuel whether the question is entertained, and if it is, the vehemence, turmoil, and discomfort that will be tolerated as a result of it.  It can happen as a polite process-informed debate, or a rowdy bedlam of chaotic change.  In this environment, it behooves all leaders to consider where they want to plant their leadership stakes.

The good and bad of defending tradition

Tradition feels comfortable.  People know the rules.  They’ve learned how to operate in the traditional environment.  That creates shortcuts for getting things done, because a lot gets accomplished intuitively.  The norms about who has authority and power, how decisions are made, how communication takes place – all are time-tested.  It’s a lot easier to implement incremental change in an environment where people trust the norms to play out as expected.

Defending tradition gives people inside the organization some safe harbor – the baby isn’t being thrown out with the bath water; things aren’t being changed for change’s sake; someone is defending some sense of order.  Defending tradition tends to reduce fear of the unknown as change occurs – as long as it doesn’t simply mean defending an outmoded status quo.

Defending tradition also accords respect for decisions made in the past.  It acknowledges that what is being done now is not wrongheaded, just in need of updating to a different age.

And defending tradition sends an affirming cultural message that what we’ve built together has intrinsic value.

But when the traditional practices fail to meet needs and goals of people in the organization, tradition becomes the enemy.  Its comfort evaporates and is replaced with resentment. Tradition is now an impediment rather than the smoother of a path to getting things done.

This transition can be rather abrupt, and can feel confusing for the leaders who got high marks for years for not rocking the boat, only to find themselves suddenly castigated for being too hidebound.

The good and bad of advocating for disruption

Disruption is energizing.  It can initiate real breakthroughs in thinking and action as people get outside norms.  The best disruptors don’t just generate discomfort with what’s wrong; they stimulate great thinking about how to get to a whole new place.

Advocating for disruption, when done respectfully, asks people to stretch themselves, to use all their talents.  It can be one of the most useful ways to allow people the freedom and encouragement to develop.

Advocating for disruption can also be a stimulus – the electrical shock that an organization needs to move out of a sluggish mold and into a more optimistic, thriving mentality.

Disruption is intoxicating.  While in the short term, that supplies energy, in the long term, it may simply become an addictive habit, and leaders do well to be sure they’re not just hooked on disruption for the high it offers.

Disruption is also tiring.  A little goes a long way.  Disruptors find themselves sidelined when they’ve made a career of disrupting and have exhausted the organization with their constant charges into new battles.

Where you choose to play your cards – as traditionalist or disruptor – will be a function of the state of your organization and your own preferences.  But know that leaning too heavily on one mode or the other may mean that in certain times, you will find yourself out of synch with where your organization needs to go.  How can you learn to be ambidextrous in your tendencies toward modes?  Chef Jose Andres reminds us, “The modernity of yesterday is the tradition of today, and the modernity of today will be tradition tomorrow.”


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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