Leadership Insurgence

One of the biggest issues facing most incumbent leaders

Leadership Insurgence:


One of the biggest issues facing most incumbent leaders (i.e., leaders at the helm of incumbent organisations) and well-articulated by one of our recent clients, is “how do I navigate my organisation through disruption as the competitive equilibrium becomes more and more unstable?”.  This is a great question! Is the very nature of leadership itself changing along with everything else or is leadership aloof from disruption?


We believe that the nature of leadership is changing.  This is, in part, because business itself is changing and things are moving much more quickly than in the past – “how can I keep up?”.  It is also driven by profound generational changes that are changing the way we interact with each other as human beings, customers, employees, stakeholders. Another key factor is the role of insurgents themselves. Insurgent organisations (coming at us with a totally different set of rules) are shaking the foundations of established businesses and leaving unprepared leaders wondering, at best, “what’s going on?”, or, at worst, “what happened?”, often after the liquidation event.


In December 2014, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms called Understanding “New Power”.  In this article, the authors make the case for a new understanding of “power” in organisational systems, arguing that “Old Power” (i.e., the traditional command and control power model) works like a currency and is controlled, hoarded and concentrated amongst a few leaders at the top.  It occurs to me that this is the backdrop to the leadership system of traditional incumbent organisations.  Heimans and Timms also introduced “New Power”, arguing that this type of power works like a current and is open, participatory and peer-driven.  New Power surges when new connections are made and cannot be hoarded like currency.  This horizontal model of “New Power” leadership is much closer to the model applied by insurgents, where leadership is distributed and the power is inherent in the co-creativity and connectedness of people working across and outside organisational systems, not so much contained in rigid hierarchies.


When intergenerational change is superimposed on this model, some interesting questions emerge.  Is “Old Power” the domain of the Baby Boomer and Generation X leaders and “New Power” the domain of Generation Y and Millenials?  This remains to be seen, however anyone in a leadership role today would be working hard to reconcile these questions to discover how best to lead and be led.  Another interesting question for further research is the role of gender in leadership, are women or men more or less pre-disposed to insurgent or incumbent leadership types?  I am betting on Women!


Can an incumbent learn to lead using New Power models?  At the 2013 Lean Startup Conference, Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit (an incumbent firm dedicated to the application of Lean Startup principles), argued that anyone who consumes resources, interacts with customers or other employees, or manages people can be described as a leader.  This is a departure from the command and control leadership style of most incumbents.  He further articulates that a key part of the Intuit leadership philosophy is “death to PowerPoint, politics and persuasion.”


So what?  We have a strong perspective that leading insurgents is fundamentally different from leading incumbents.  Insurgent leaders evolve, connect and co-create.  Insurgent leaders tend to lead horizontally, not vertically.  Insurgent leaders look at the organisation from the outside-in not the inside-out.  Insurgent leaders instinctively understand that there is no wall around the “company” and that their organisational boundaries extend out into the domain of the customer and other key stakeholders.


To learn more about Leadership Insurgence, please contact us and we will be happy to share our perspectives with you.

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