Leadership lessons from highway: Navigating curves en route to Destination Disruption


This blog is about a mix of highway signs, business strategy and us. How do these three converge? Read on…

Any traveler who traverses the Himalayan Roads in Northeast India would be certain to notice some very quirky road safety signs by the Border Roads Organization (BRO), which manages and maintains these treacherous terrains, roads and highways in very challenging and often extreme weather conditions. Two of my favorites signs are “I am curvaceous. Be slow.” and “Be gentle on my curves.”

Growing up, I would often see some women travelers jokingly pose next to these signs for a memory for themselves or perhaps for their significant other. Little did I know then how these messages can be key on the journey to navigate the curves of self-development for any leader in today’s non-linear world.

In 1962 Everett M. Rogers gave the world the ‘S’ curve model, in which industry disruption follows an “S” curve.  When market penetration reaches 10-15%, a tipping point occurs and kicks in a period of hyper growth. At around 90% saturation, the growth stagnates. This is when industries need to reinvent themselves. If they do not, they risk being disrupted.

As John Chambers, Executive Chairman and former CEO of Cisco Systems, has said (referring to market cap), “It took 21 years for Amazon to overtake Walmart, similarly Tesla took 14 years to overtake Ford and General Motors and for us it took 7.5 years to overtake Tesla. Tomorrow a challenger might need only 3.5 years to overtake the existing leader.”

This means that the learning curve for leaders and individuals also must be ramped up to keep up pace. Disrupt Yourself author Whitney Johnson talks about how an individual can follow a similar “S” curve to the one described above, as a way to evolve to next level of self-improvement and avoid stagnation. Once an individual has hit the top of a ladder, they need to jump to another one to continue climbing.

According to Johnson, learning does not follow a linear curve.  When we learn something new, our progress is slow. As our expertise grows, however, we pick-up speed and soon perform at an optimum level which results in steep growth. After doing this repeatedly, boredom and complacency set in, emotional satisfaction starts to dwindle and growth reaches a saturation point. The growth curve plateaus at top of the ‘S.’  At this stage, to grow individuals will need to disrupt themselves.  ‘S’ curves provide you the mechanism to deal with phases and set milestones for this growth journey.

In her book, Johnson suggests these 7 accelerants for personal disruption:

  • Take the right risks: Play where no one else is. Be aware of changes around you, educate yourself on the latest trends and developments in order to understand the disruptions, opportunities and the risks around them.
  • Play to distinctive strengths: Identify your core strengths and play to them. Fill a need in the market through a job that does not exist or only you can do. Explore paths and solutions that have previously been tried.
  • Embrace constraints: Understand your own limitations and find alternatives and workarounds to turn those constraints into strengths.
  • Battle entitlement: Move away from a ‘I exists therefore I deserve’ mind set. You are entitled to favors, so focus on creating, investing and nurturing the right relationships and networks.
  • Step back to grow: An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. Sometimes the way forward requires stepping back, or moving laterally. There are plenty of examples across many fields of leaders who returned to education or moved to an entirely new field while at peak of their career.
  • Give failure its due: When you try something new you are bound to fail. Acknowledge the failure and its pain, learn from it, and carry forward these lessons while leaving any related bitterness behind. Peter Doyle, president of Domino’s, says individuals need to overcome two factors to be able to deal with failure better:
    • omission bias – Doing something new and failing puts the status quo at risk. Therefore, they think inaction is less blame worthy than action.
    • loss aversion. People feel the pain of failure more than the joy of success, so they tend to play “not to lose” rather than “to win.”
  • Be discovery driven: Why disrupt? What is your motivator? Are you giving up too soon on your current path or jumping the ladder? What is needed to make it happen? Think like an investor, not a manager.

Robin Sharma, a leading life coach, says growth happens not from revolution but from evolution. According to research studies by Clayton M. Christensen — considered by some to be the father of “Disruptive innovation” — when a company enters a new market rather than an established one, chances of success are six times higher and revenue potential twenty times higher. Similar numbers for personal career disruptions are harder to come by, but examples of outliers and moonshot takers who have followed this strategy point to similar results resulting in greater financial, social and emotional rewards.

Getting ahead of the curve is difficult and it often does not work right away. It is important in these difficult times to embrace the risk and give yourself permission to fail. The words of Dieter F. Uchtdorf sum it up: “We are made of stuff of eternity. Endings are not our destiny.” Wishing you the best on your journey of disruption. Bon Voyage!

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