transitive verb \dis-ˈrəpt\
1. To throw into confusion or disorder:
Entrepreneurs make money, sometimes lots of it, as quickly as possible. Sometimes even for others. Intrapreneurs (entrepreneurs inside large organizations) make change, sometimes also money, usually at a slower pace. Although it can be a slog, they bring others in the organization along. Visionary, creative disrupters are a special breed. Whether on the inside or outside of larger organizations, they work to make change at scale by leveraging broad capabilities, resources, assets, collaborations, etc. It can be a lonely and difficult job, because most people are content to steward or follow the usual way. People don’t like change, confusion, or disorder. It’s uncomfortable. “Hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”…as far as they can see.
But the problem/gift of visionary disrupters is that they see more, across time and space. They don’t look away.
Disrupters in business usually start outside of large organizations, because as Clay Christensen’s data show us, it has historically been hard to do innovation inside. These disruptive entrepreneurs have a mission way beyond short term profit. They have system change in their sights. They redesign sleepy industries where corporations are napping. They continue to live by a bigger ethos, even as the money rolls in. They are visionary. Whole Foods. Costco. Southwest Airlines. Entrepreneurs seeking backing for innovative energy sources that could transform the lives of millions of people in global poverty, especially oppressed women.
Disruptive intrapreneurs are unencumbered by the historical data on innovation inside. They keep trying, because they know there is too much money, people, and power tied up in their large organizations to give up. Their work is vital to our economy now, and we can’t thank them enough. If disrupters work in healthcare, they see the system is broken and must try to fix it. If they work in social services, they see too many band aids, and not enough root cause solutions, so they must find them. If they work in education, they cannot take their eyes off of the children at the center of all of the State testing and SAT driven curriculum. If they work for the orchestra, they know they have to adjust because the funding model broke and they left people behind. If they work in manufacturing, they know that treating people like widgets won’t work, even if they make them.
Then, there are visionary leaders who were, when you stop and think about what they really did in their context and time….yes, creative disrupters. They took on and effected change in systems that weren’t serving people, even the ones they were supposed to protect. Nelson Mandela. Mother Theresa. Martin Luther King. John F. Kennedy. Gandhi. Aung San Suu Kyi. Abraham Lincoln. Rosa Parks. Pope Francis. Whom do you really admire, deep in your heart? I bet there are some disrupters on the list.
Unlike so many other platforms, disruption is truly an equal opportunity employer. Disrupters are men and women, in all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexual and spiritual orientations. Yes, they even live in large corporations, thank goodness. They often start out solving their own problem (so much of what we all do is autobiographical), but cast a much wider net to include others. They could have comfortable lives working within or even stewarding systems (a form of leadership we tend to celebrate and reward), but they are not content. Their motivations are intrinsic. They see greater truth, and they seek to realize it. They may seem to work alone, but they really don’t. They are buoyed by close, loyal partners and often a personal if not formal faith, which is important because they can be ridiculed…or even imprisoned or killed. Disrupters in business may make more than a few bucks in the end, but that’s not what makes us LOVE them as great, visionary leaders, is it? That’s not what makes us what to be more like them when we grow up.
This can be us. Witness the transformation of Ron Woodruff, a hustler and electrician played by Matthew McConaughey in the biographical movie Dallas Buyers’ Club (in theaters now). He was not rich, or well heeled, or degreed in any fancy way. Yet, he was an inspirational disrupter. More accurately, he became one. So did his partner on the inside, an intrapreneurial doc played by Jennifer Garner. There came a moment when they realized they needed to do something bigger than the job at hand – for him, financing his own survival with HIV; for her, doing the best job she could within the parameters of medical research at the time. Ultimately, they took on the FDA and effected change. It’s far from the usual romantic comedy for both actors, but the empathy these characters had for each other gave them the courage. See the movie. Witness the moment of transition for each of these heroes. These creative disrupters. What will be your moment, I wonder? For more inspiration from everyday disrupters, look here.
Oh, sure, there are some disrupters who are just, well…disruptive, in a destructive way. You know them when you see them – people vying for attention for a variety of narcissistic reasons – these are not the creative disrupters we celebrate here. How do you know the difference? Ask yourself: is this about a particular person or something much bigger? does she gather a cult following or partners? does he back down when the going gets rough or pull in all the resources and good ideas to emerge stronger?
Visionary, creative disrupters have courage, even though they may have fear. They head right into the messiness. Oftentimes, they create it. Others try to ignore or take them down, because people fear chaos and love order. But order is not the opposite of chaos. Order is a human construct, fine and good, but oh so limited. The opposite of chaos is cosmos – universal truth, goodness, whatever God you believe in. Truly creative disrupters, within or outside of the walls of any organization, channel all that – cosmos. They work with people instead of clay or paint, but they are artists just the same, channeling their corner of the truth into this world.
What will be yours?
Thanks to Dallas Buyers’ Club, Madeleine L’Engle (via Walking on Water), and my creatively disruptive clients and colleagues for inspiration. Thanks to Eva Basilion for conversations which helped crystalize the truth, as usual. Thanks also to Jennifer Lehner and Monica Tanase-Coles for their suggestions on this post.
Photo credit: Dallas Buyers’ Club promotional picture of Matthew McConaughey (yes, really) as published here.