Disrupt Yourself | Book Review

"Failure to acknowledge and see the abundance in another
person's success is a form of entitlement." (p. 67)

While focusing on individual growth and transformation, Whitney Johnson offers systematic guidelines for any leader to revamp others and their organizations. Her personal stories of bridging from secretary to investment banker (p. xviii), and collaboration with Clayton Christensen are captivating and credible.

Johnson identifies seven variables along the S-Curve path, developed by E.M Rogers in 1962, his attempt to understand how, why, and at what rate ideas and products spread throughout cultures (p. xxii). Many of us have seen this model in business school. By understanding these factors, we can speed up or slow down the movement of individuals or organizations along the curve by:

• Taking the right risks
• Playing to your distinctive strengths
• Embracing constraints
• Battling entitlement
• Stepping back to grow
• Giving failure its due
• Being discovery driven


Day one of an Academy Leadership Excellence Course teaches us to understand ourselves as the beginning of a leadership path, or if we apply the right variables, we can explode into our own mastery (p. xxvi). In a way, Johnson has written a self-coaching work, and this review advocates a dual approach, additionally for developing others and revolutionizing organizations.

Situational Awareness

Disruption often implies "risk," which has assumed mostly negative connotations (p. 8). Rather than act on impulse, Johnson calls for clarifying fundamental personal objectives. Think of our Energize2Lead (E2L) assessments, where we learn what we like to do, expect from others and instinctively need. When we understand ourselves, and others that deeply, we can ask, as coach or mentor, what might be lost by standing still (p. 9). This situational awareness allows us to take the right risks.

Johnson introduces a key takeaway, distinguishing between competitive risk and market risk (p. 9). Think of competitive risk as little ventured, little gained, or what everyone else is already doing. Market risk is the right kind of risk when you're looking for a new learning curve to scale (p. 11). It's innovation. You'll know you're dealing with market risk when you realize there is no one else doing a job that needs to be done (p. 16).

Alignment & Focus

Innovators, or disruptors not only look for unmet market needs, they match those needs with distinctive strengths (p. 19). This reminds us of the E2L preferred dimension. Consider asking questions such as "What energizes you?" or "Can you recall what happened the last day you went home from work energized?" As a leader, have you asked direct reports and peers questions like these?

Our Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP) can help answer what makes us and others different (p. 21), or even an oddball. Recall we share our idiosyncrasies in a PLP. Aligning unique strengths with a new endeavor provides initial energy up the S-Curve. Johnson advises humility at this early stage, and many of the associated activities as "pay to play," constituting initial learning milestones (p. 34). Imagine releasing a team of "misfits" with aligned passions to revolutionize an industry.

With a developmental mindset, we can orchestrate a series of focused jobs starting with pay-to-play, then disrupting ourselves (or others) accumulating additional skills along the way. Johnson describes Michelle McKenna-Doyle's CIO journey (pp. 44-45) as an excellent example. The best mentors (as opposed to a coach) embody such lifetime advocacy.

Johnson wisely recommends embracing constrains, which may be better understood as applying a laser focus. She points out the most definitive scientific experiments are conducted when you change only one variable at a time (p. 43). Or, think of Google Ventures' Sprint practice of week-long focused prototyping with direct user feedback. Need proof this works? As many as 72 percent of [these] successful businesses were pulling themselves up by their bootstraps (p. 49).

In A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden outline a six-step (pp. 53-55) prescription for marshalling constraints:

• Move from a victim to neutralizer to transformer.
• Break path dependence.
• Ask propelling questions.
• Reframe to "can-if."
• Seek new sources of abundance.
• Activate emotions.

Humility | Battling Entitlement

Dog ear the incisive Chapter 4, Battle Entitlement, the Innovation Killer. Johnson cautions us as we move into the growth phase of our learning curve and gain more confidence, entitlement is a risk we all face (p. 61). Recall that Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams, an already successful general officer, discarded prior best practices and embraced radical knowledge-sharing while fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq. Johnson shares a similar story recalling how Johnson & Johnson assembled small, cross-silo teams and got them in-country to find ways to better deliver health-care access in an emerging market (p. 65).

Watch out for the destructive scarcity mindset. Failure to acknowledge and see the abundance in another person's success is a form of entitlement (p. 67). A leadership philosophy or family contract are good ways to discourage this kind of thinking. Johnson suggests a gratitude journal, or a written list of three things you are thankful for each day and why (p. 69).

Forming the habit of seeing good in others is one of the hallmarks of leaders.

Liz Wiseman, author of Rookie Smarts,  found that "inexperienced people, whether recent university graduates or experienced professionals coming from other organizations or functions, are surprisingly strong performers." (p. 72)

Let's not forget Johnson's admonition: We must disrupt ourselves before we disrupt others (p. 74).

Be a Coach

Setting Leadership Priorities workshops usually have rather low self-evaluation scores. Isn't it interesting that the same people with these modest scores regularly struggle to step back and delegate? Effective leaders sacrifice some of [their] own productivity to teach employees new skills, making the whole team more effective down the road (pp. 77-78).

There's a good chance prior metrics won't work when we're moving up the S-Curve. Johnson cites Christensen:

"A disruptive innovation must measure different attributes of
performance than those in your current value networks."
(p. 89)

This is vital for any innovative leader. Dr. Stacey Petrey of Mylan Pharmaceuticals (p. 90) offers powerful performance metrics:

1) Talent developer
2) Innovator
3) Value Integrator

Imagine coaching your team using these three metrics embedded in your leadership philosophy. This may be a radical change, since many of us have been conditioned by our workplaces to believe technical perfection is the ultimate goal, and failure the worst possible outcome.

Not surprisingly, Johnson found that straight-A girls were the most likely to throw in the towel when confronted with a difficult problem (p. 97). How much innovation or disruption will that mindset produce? As coaches, we can help subordinates resist believing a failure becomes a referendum on [them], allowing a millstone of shame to drown [them] and [their] dreams (p. 103).

Curiosity | Being Discovery Driven

One of the most significant common characteristics of effective leaders and coaches is lifetime curiosity. A sense of purpose provides the energy. According to David Brooks:

"Most people don't form a self and then lead a life.
They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed
gradually by their calling." (p. 113)

When we align our leadership philosophy with purpose, rather than procedure, agility will result. Or put another way, if you are driven by discovery, at any of these checkpoints you may decide to alter your course as you evaluate the functional and emotional job that you are hiring [education] to do (p. 116). That is our current business reality. 70 percent of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different from the one they initially pursued (p. 119).


As leaders, we must continuously keep in mind the power of purpose. As Lisa McLeod found studying the sales force of a major biotech firm: the top performers had a far more pronounced sense of purpose than their average-performing companies (p. 124).

Or, the more that you disrupt, the better you'll get at it.

Note: Whitney generously provided a copy of her book for review.

JE | February 2018