How to be a great leader in an age of disruption

Don't ignore the present and balance urgency with accuracy, writes Procter & Gamble's president of Europe.

by Gary Coombe
Last Updated: 22 Aug 2016
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Future Business

We are living in an age of disruption and only those who are quickest to respond and fastest to change—even transform—will survive. Any industry or company which thinks it is immune to this is sorely mistaken and will pay a heavy price. The next generation of leaders will need to embrace wholly new models of leadership to be successful. Here, I offer just a few examples of how I see models for leadership needing to change in an age of disruption.

Be ready to learn and change every day

For generations, leaders have relied on their experience and wisdom founded on having been there, seen it and done it before. This will always have a place as we guide younger generations through the harsh realities of today’s business environment, but we can no longer rely on this for every decision. We have to embrace new ideas, wholly new models of doing business and new, innovative solutions to the toughest problems. The most successful businesses today are disrupters, creating new-to-the-world products and consumer solutions. Experience can only take us so far – we have to have the courage to leap into the unknown and to encourage those around us to do the same.

One eye on today, one on tomorrow

Leadership has always required vision and the need to balance the fierce urgency of now with what’s required for a sustainable future. Great leaders have one eye on today and the other on tomorrow. Every issue or short-term problem needs to be fixed. Every financial quarter needs to be hit. But, more than ever before, organisations need their leaders to be looking to the long-term and identifying the next breakthrough opportunity before anyone else. Leaders must be productively paranoid – never truly content with where they are – and constantly scouring the landscape for the next potential disruption or challenge that could threaten their winning strategy and, ultimately, their organisation’s survival.

The only failure is the absence of learning

We all have great people around us – that’s why we hired them. But the buck stops with us. In increasingly tough times, this creates the temptation to maintain a tight leash and centralise decision-making close to home. This will no longer work. We have to empower decision making at the lowest possible level. Great leaders create a culture of enterprise and adventure where the only failure is the absence of learning. A new generation of digital natives are waiting to lead your business into a new world of possibilities – don’t stand in their way.

Balance urgency with accuracy

There is a compelling case that today’s environment is ‘Survival of the Fastest.’ However, as with so much in business, leaders must bring balance. The pressing urgency for change and action must be balanced with the need to ensure it is being made in the right direction. This requires leaders to penetrate the details of an issue, identify the root-cause that needs addressing, and ensure that vital time and resources aren’t wasted on treating a symptom rather than the source of a problem. Great leaders of the future will balance the urgency for action with the need to first get to a clear statement of the problem to be solved.

It’s about them, not you

The best leaders are not remembered solely for what they achieve during their time in charge, but also for the calibre of the people who succeed them. Leaders today have a greater responsibility than ever before to support, guide and inspire the next generation. This requires a fundamental shift in what we perceive as leadership and how we teach others in our organisations to view leadership and the responsibilities that come with it. We have to help young leaders in our organisations understand that leadership is not about promotions or band levels or job titles or big salaries – nice to have as those things may be. The ultimate challenge for any leader is to look over their shoulder and see if anyone is following them. Crucial to this is realising that being a leader is not about you; it is about the people you are seeking to lead and the impact you can have on them.

Gary Coombe is president, Europe at Procter & Gamble


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