Introduction to Disruption

Introduction to Disruption


To be competitive, it’s no longer enough to be innovative – you must have a strategy for disruptive growth, a plan to identify and seize an opportunity no one else has the audacity or confidence to reach for. Disruptors don’t just blow things up – they also create and build things that result in huge, positive change. Welcome to The New Rules of Disruption with Charlene Li.


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During this episode, we discuss:

  •     Why I’m passionate about disruption.
  •     The three significant pressures impacting leaders today.
  •     Perpetual change requires a new set of rules for leadership.
  •     What does it mean to be a leader versus the best leaders for whom we’ve ever worked?
  •     Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to create change and people inspired to follow them.
  •     Leadership requires practicing followership, defining the type of relationship you want with followers.
  •     To be relationship-focused, leaders need to move on from traditional command-and-control models of leadership. 
  •     Author Gary Bolles gives an example of the new type of relationship needed, that of a leader or manager becoming a guide.
  •     Relationships mean that we aim for excellence instead of perfection because no relationship is ever perfect. 

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Episode Transcript

Leaders have never been challenged in their career as much as they are today, with technology empowering the voices of customers, many leaders are realizing that we’re now in a perpetual state of always-on transformation. 

 It’s time for disruption, a transformation of leadership and a transformation of ourselves. But what rules do we play by when you want to create this change? This podcast is about how we as leaders, must transform ourselves to make it all work. My name is Charlene Li. And these are the new rules of disruption.

 My life has been filled with disruption. I’m the daughter of immigrants, have always been an outsider, have often been the only – you name it – the woman, the Asian, the young person, the old person now these days. And I wanted to be able to create content and frameworks and practical tips about how do you deal with these differences? How do you deal with change? And not just survive it, but to thrive with it. 

 What I hope the listening to this podcast get is not only the knowledge and the tips of how to become a transformational disruptive leader, but to have the confidence to be able to step out there and begin this journey. Because it is a journey. It is a long one, it is a hard one. But it is absolutely worth the journey. 

When I talk with leaders, they share how tough it is today to be a leader. They’ve never been challenged in their career as much as they are today. And the past year alone has changed so much of our collective perspective of what a leader is,

 There were three major pressures impacting leaders today. The first one is technology. And we’ve been feeling this over the past decade where customers and employees are able to use technology to have their voices heard. And unless you acknowledge it, and embrace what they have to say, you will be on the outs. They will not be coming back. You will lose them as employees. You will lose them as customers. 

 The second trend is the whole pandemic has forced us to look at the way we work in a very different way. Many of us had to stay in our homes and work remotely from each other – not a natural thing to do. So how did you show up as a leader? How do you actually lead when you can’t see the people you’re leading? You can’t see the body language and get those cues and connect with people and empathize with them in that way. 

 The third pressure is the whole movement for social justice. And it’s easy to dismiss this as something that’s happening in the broader community. But we know that our employees are walking into the office being impacted by this in their lives. Either they are part of a disenfranchised community, or they see their dominance being changed, their privilege be brought to light. So being able to understand those dynamics in the workplace and have people acknowledge this and not push it down is a key part of being a leader today. 

 It’s probably easier just to move it away and not make it something that you talk about. But then are you really allowing people to reach their full potential in their position? Are they checking things at the door? Are they having to watch what they say? Is there trust in your organization? And as a leader, you really need to be aware of those dynamics and ensure that the opportunities are there for everybody. 

 When you look at all of these changes, the key thing here now is that change is not something that just happens periodically. It is perpetual. It is always on and leaders are going to be called upon to be constantly thinking about how to disrupt and transform their organizations. There’s no time off anymore, and we need to be prepared with new rules of disruption, new ways of leading. This is not to say the old rules don’t apply anymore. But we have to think about how they are changing and morphing to meet the challenges of leadership today. 

 I grew up as a child of immigrants in Detroit – Asian, Chinese, not even speaking English as my first language. So, when I got to school and kindergarten for the first time, I spoke with a distinct accent, I couldn’t say certain words correctly. And it just stood out because I was the only person who was not white. So, from the very beginning of my education, being part of the community, I have been an outsider. I have been a disrupter simply by being in the room. That taught me how to be different, how to be comfortable with that, how to fit in, but always acknowledge that I also stood out. 

 And that has helped me have a disruption mindset to say that if I wanted to create change, why shouldn’t it be me because I was already creating change. And that gave me a lot of confidence to be able to raise my hand, even when I was the “only” because I’ve always been the only – I grew up this way. And because of that, I have tremendous confidence that no matter what I do, no matter how I speak up, how it’s received, if I fail or succeed, I’ll be okay. 

 I am so excited that you’re listening to the new rules of disruption. My hope is that you gain a new perspective on what it means to be a leader, and that you will also gain the confidence to be able to take the first step on this exciting journey. My name is Charlene Li and I help leaders thrive with disruption. I’m the New York Times bestselling author of six books, including my latest “The Disruption Mindset”. I’ve also worked at top companies ranging from Adobe and Southwest Airlines. And I’ve also spoken at conferences like the World Economic Forum, World Business Forum, and South by Southwest. I started my own company Altimeter Group in 2008, and sold it in 2015, to Prophet. 

 My experience as an author, analysts, entrepreneur, and coach really helped me think about the new rules of disruption that leaders need to have. Because of all of those experiences, I’ve learned along the way that leaders really benefit from having time set aside to think about how they will be, how they will show up, how they want to be seen and heard, and have the impact they want to have. And they’re ill-equipped to do this. 

 My passion for working with leaders and for making this podcast is to equip leaders with the rules, with the knowledge, and the practical ways to be able to move forward and be the leader they still want to be. 

 Let’s get into it. Let’s start by thinking about what it means to be a leader. What words come to mind when you think about a great leader? Probably words like inspirational, visionary, competent, commanding, in control, demanding, eloquent, failure is not an option. And, of course, powerful. 

 Our educational system, the media, our organizations, our political systems favor this idealized image of leadership. We glorify the entrepreneur who doesn’t take no for an answer. We idolize politicians and athletes and celebrities because of their power and influence, and we aspire to be like them. 

 But now think about the actual leaders in your life. Think about the best leader you’ve ever had the privilege of working with, and don’t think about what they did or said. But think about how they made you feel. Put that feeling into a few words, one word even. And then most likely words like empowered, listened to, heard, accountable, responsible, and my favorite, limitless. 

 This is the true aspect of leadership. It’s simply a relationship between those who aspire to create change, and those who are inspired to follow them. That relationship is sacred. It is what we aim to do in our lives and is the leader that we want to be. 

 In my experience, leadership takes the wrong turn, when you’re most focused on the outcomes, on the strategy, and not so much on the relationship with the people who have to execute on that strategy. You could have the most beautiful strategy worked out in excruciating details. But if the people do not believe in you, if you do not have the credibility, if you have not focused on the relationship with them, and they believe in you, they will never follow you into that journey. 

 This is why I keep focusing on relationships. Leaders that I have coached and advised over the years – where the leadership is just not pulled together, where people are not aligned – it’s rarely the strategy. It is the fact that they have not invested in that relationship. 

 So, we start right from the very beginning. What kind of relationship do you want? What kind of relationship do you need to be able to execute on your strategy? And the more disruptive and more transformational the change that you have to create, the more you have to focus on that relationship.

 Charlene here, if you’re listening to this and thinking, I’m ready for more, then I want to let you know about all the resources available on my website, There you will find my latest books, articles, videos, courses, and more. All built to help leaders in organizations see the future and thrive with disruption. I’ve worked with top companies ranging from Adobe to Southwest Airlines. I’ve also spoken at conferences like the World Economic Forum, World Business Forum, and South by Southwest. And on my website, you will find many of the things I have shared with them. So go now to to transform your leadership today.

 When it comes to leadership, the flip side is this concept of followership, that was developed by Robert Kelley. His concept there was that if you want to be a great leader, then you have to think about the type of relationship you want with your followers. Do you expect them to be what he called sheep? Do we expect them to just follow your orders exactly the way you said them and just follow you without any mind of your own? You’re just going to follow the leader, lineup in a row, and do whatever you say. 

 That could work for some leaders. And it does, especially if you have all the answers. But when you’re dealing with change, and disruption and transformation, you as a leader rarely have all of the answers, if any. 

 In those cases, it’s a very different type of relationship you want. Something where it’s an engaged follower, somebody who sees themselves as equal, so you have fostered this relationship with them. They feel that they have the agency and the power to be able to speak up and say, “I know we’re on this path. But that one might be a better one. Should be go check it out?” That kind of relationship is a key part of being a strong leader, because you’re focused on your followers 

 Our perception of leadership, of being a command and control, authoritarian leader, standing at the front of a charging horde, is one that I think we need to set aside. And we need to acknowledge instead, that leadership has this human relationship as part of our leadership. Without that acknowledgement, we’ll never get to that point where people are developing a relationship with ourselves. Words like empathy, and vulnerability, honesty, fairness – these are the words that people say over and over again, that they want from their leaders. 

 And yet, when we think about developing all those areas of ourselves, we think of them as a soft side of leadership, versus the hard side of reports, and goals and strategies, and all those financial reports that we have to do. Those are important. But in many ways that soft side is actually the hard side. It’s hard because it calls upon us to find a spot in ourselves, where we do make ourselves vulnerable, when we open ourselves to relationships. 

 And the reason why this is so hard, is that we have to give up the idea of being in control. Because it’s a fallacy. Are we truly in control when we’re a leader? Can we really order somebody and expect that they will follow us because we have a title, because we sit at a certain place in the hierarchy? They may nod their heads; they may walk out the door with a to do list. But will they really do it well? Will they put their heart and soul and their passion behind that if they do not believe in you If you have not taken the time to see them, and to acknowledge them, and to give them that relationship that they crave? 

 Doing this is very hard. I want to acknowledge that if your model of leadership is more traditional, authoritarian, command and control, then this is a whole new world. If you’re somewhere along the journey, you’ve begun to taste what it’s like, you’re beginning to see the impact, but it’s still hard and uncomfortable. What I’m asking you to do with this podcast is to step out of your comfort zone to try on these new ideas and more importantly, to try them out, put them into practice in your everyday work. 

 Gary Bowles, the author of the next rules of work, and the chair of The Future of Work at Singularity University, shared with me what this shift will look like with the evolution of the leader or manager into the role of a guide,

 “Going from being the sage on the stage, to the guide on the side, no longer the person with all the answers, but instead the one with all the best questions. And I urge for the same kind of thinking about that person formerly known as the manager. The team guide is much more about enabling every individual in a team to be able to develop their human potential, to be able to co-create and co-collaborate around dynamically binding around problems, solving the problems together and going on to the next one.”

 Gary gave a great example of what a guy’s role would look like in the future. Here he is explaining one way it could work.

 “You as a team guide, you come in on Monday, and you say I’m not sticking around. For the rest of the week, day by day, you say, I want each of you to define the problems that you solve in a given week. I want you to define the skills that you bring to solve those problems. I want you to define the tasks that you do. And you’re doing this all with post it notes on a whiteboard in a design thinking exercise. And then I want you to recalibrate all that – the skills that each of you have, the tasks you perform, and the problems you’re trying to solve – focus on the problems, reorganize all of that, so that it’s done the most effectively between each of you. And I as the team guide, I’m going to do none of it. And then on Friday, I’m going to come back in and say, ‘Okay, make all that happen.’ Now, what you did was a couple of things is, first off, you brought a new mindset, which is you didn’t solve any of the problems like not a single one of them. You just set the framework within which they could potentially effectively solve those problems.

 Such ideas and approaches can be challenging for you as a leader. You have to ask yourself, how will you change as a leader? How will you embrace and acknowledge that things have changed, and that your ways of thinking about the world also has to change? These new rules of disruption are meant to be your guideposts, meant to be your map to understanding how the new rules of leadership are going to work. 

 After all, if it’s a relationship, think about the ones that are in your lives. Which of your relationships are perfect, that you know exactly how they’re going to turn out? That when you begin a conversation, you are fully confident, that it’s going to go exactly the way you want. We know that the richness and the power of relationships is that uncertainty. 

 And it’s not about perfection. Leadership is not about perfection. It’s instead about that relationship and it’s the pursuit of something very different. It’s about excellence. It’s about how can we be our best selves in connection with each other in a relationship with each other, because we know we can be better, because we are with each other. 

This is the first episode and I hope it’s giving you a taste of the new skills, the new mindsets, The New Rules of leadership, you’re going to need to know these things in order to thrive as a leader, tapping my network of extraordinary leaders and thinkers. I’ll give you the framework and pragmatic tools that you need to transform your leadership to be able to thrive with disruption. 

Rule number one, lead through relationship.

Hey there, thanks for listening to the new rules of disruption. We created this podcast with the hope that you would be inspired to become a disrupter. Disruptors don’t just blow things up. They also create and build things that result in huge positive change. 

This is a change that the world needs now more than ever, and we want to hear about what change you are creating in this world. You can send us your disruptive story by visiting 

If you are enjoying this podcast, I have one major ask. Please share it with a coworker, manager, or a friend. Let’s build communities of disruption together.

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