White House strategy chief Steve Bannon admitted at a major conference for US conservatives last week that many of the Trump administration’s Cabinet picks “were selected for a reason” – namely, to dismantle the agencies they were hired to lead. Bannon also described the mission that lay ahead for Team Trump in frankly warlike terms, as a ceaseless battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state”.
So far, so disruptive. Indeed, Bannon’s message chimes readily with that of business leaders who have ventured into certain sectors with the specific aim of kicking over the furniture. Think of how music-industry outsider Steve Jobs rendered record labels subservient by unleashing the iPod and iTunes, stealing power from under the noses of startled showbiz moguls. Think also of how Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick supercharged the firm’s global presence to the extent that it still regularly clashes with local regulatory frameworks.
But isn’t there something about Bannon’s comments that feels disquietingly apocalyptic? What about all those core values that are so highly prized in management and leadership: continuity, reliability… administrative order and integrity? Surely there are risks that a disruptive personality – or group thereof – could overstep the mark and spawn abject chaos. So how can a change-making leader gauge disruption to play out within reasonable limits – or is rampant disorder very much the object of the exercise?
“There has to be a continuity of business-as-usual,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “Whatever you’re doing, you can’t just stop in order to change to a new system. So there’s an absolute need to understand the value of stability.”
However, she explains, “honesty about your intentions is crucial. Deliberately putting in someone who is new to the field, or who is going to challenge the status quo and introduce new thinking, is actually fine. Disruption isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s whether you do it in a manipulative or Machiavellian way. If you’re putting in people to disrupt, and then colleagues learn that that person is there to dismantle, trust becomes an issue, and it would be better if that person’s presence were transient.”
Cooper adds: “Your dismantlers are not your rebuilders, and rebuilding often relates to relationships – never mind the business model. You can’t stay in a constant state of flux – if you do, then what is business-as-usual – and what is your purpose? Plus, someone can go into a situation and say, ‘let’s really shake things up’, but not have much insight into the model as it stands and how it actually works, which also poses a problem. So these decisions should always come from a very informed perspective.”
For further thoughts on culture change, check out this feature from Edge