Lead or Get Out of the Way: Fence-Sitting Is No Longer an Option Leader-caretakers aren't prepared to navigate their people or companies through the age of disruption. To stay competitive, you must outpace change.

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Simply managing the status quo is no longer acceptable.

People who play defense and avoid offense are "leader-caretakers." True leaders constantly must position themselves to boldly guide their organizations into the headwinds of change, despite the tumultuous forces swirling around them in this global age of disruption.

Conducting business as usual.

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer provides the perfect case study. For 12 years, he was the ultimate leader-caretaker. He acted as though his job merely was to keep the company afloat after founder Bill Gates left the day-to-day role.

Ballmer fought hard to maintain business as usual. He seemed surprised when the moat around his company began shrinking. He believed that sticking with what made Microsoft successful in the past -- core hardware and software -- would guarantee future success. Share price spoke otherwise: Under his leadership, Microsoft dropped from $60 per share in January 2012 to $30 per share in 2014, the year Ballmer left the company.

What might have been Ballmer's biggest misstep? In 2007 his management team pleaded with him to begin investing in cloud computing. Ballmer ignored these recommendations and instead placed his bets on the doomed Vista operating platform. This is a stunning example of how a leader-caretaker sticks to his or her knitting even as the external business environment changes in significant ways.

Related: Are You a Builder, Accelerator or Fixer?

Outpacing change.

On the other hand, there are leaders we call "leader-accelerators." They are the exceptional leaders of the 21st century. They think big and make great things happen in almost any circumstance. They breathe life and new energy into teams and processes, initiating an incredible ripple effect to generate positive outcomes. This is why we suggest that leader-accelerators are the "force-multipliers" behind exceptional results.

The ability to survive, thrive and accelerate results -- both individually and organizationally -- is tied directly to the ability to outpace change in the external environment. This truth is captured in two operating principles strongly at play in the modern marketplace. These principles are agnostic in that they apply to every industry, geography and product mix.

  • Age of disruption principle (today) : "To win today, individuals and organizations must be able to change internally faster and more dynamically than the speed and magnitude of external change."
  • Age of disruption principle (tomorrow): "To win tomorrow, individuals and organizations must create internal change capacity and capability faster than the rate of change projected to happen externally."

Azim Premji, commonly known as the czar of the Indian IT revolution, reinforced these principles in his writings: "When the rate of change outside is more than what it is inside, be sure that the end is near." Premji hints at a harder-hitting truth. Irrelevance, and even extinction, is inevitable when leaders fail to heed age of disruption principles.

Related: 11 Beliefs These Moguls Use to Win Big

Thinking bigger.

As the world continues to spin at a faster rate, it will throw off problems and opportunities at a higher rate and in every nook and cranny of the globe. It is the leader-accelerators who will identify these problems and opportunities, surround themselves with great talent and move forward with disruptive visions that completely alter the landscape.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh once said, "Whatever you're thinking, think bigger." If anyone adheres to this, it's Elon Musk. The serial entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla, Hyperloop and SpaceX told the 2013 South by Southwest conference crowd that "I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact." Does leadership thinking get any bigger?

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Choosing your strategy.

We suggest that the change-before-you-have-to approach is a better strategy than the change-because-you-have-to philosophy. Today's global leaders and organizations would be wise to disrupt rather than be disrupted. Taking control can help them avoid playing the game of business as accidental victim.

Caretaking no longer is a viable option. In fact, by definition, a caretaking leader is really just a "leader-decelerator" in disguise. Leader-decelerators tend to batten down the hatches when big changes are afoot. They hope the winds of change will blow over, leaving everything the same as before. This reactive approach to leadership is a recipe for disaster in today's global economy.

Fence-sitters, beware.

Wavy Line
Shane Cragun and Kate Sweetman

Founding Partners at Sweetman Cragun and co-authors of Reinvention

Shane Cragun and Kate Sweetman are founding partners at SweetmanCragun, a global management consulting, training, and coaching firm. They’ve also co-authored the highly-anticipated new book, Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption. Learn more at www.sweetmancragun.com.

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