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Buccino Leadership Institute

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The need for effective leadership in the face of disruptive, large-scale change is fresh in our minds. COVID-19 took us from staying home for two weeks to a global pandemic overnight, launching us into a new future, ready or not.

Today, as the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, its effects linger well beyond health implications. Connecting remotely for work, school and socializing has become part of everyday life, with little reason to doubt this is the new normal. The core structures of society — government, business, education, nonprofits — have all been affected.

History provides endless examples of the natural, social and technological worlds imposing themselves on taken-for-granted routines and processes. Yet we need not look back any further than the past few years to appreciate the speed and force with which our lives can be flipped upside down. Will we learn from this and take action to build our future, or remain focused on short-term horizons and allow the future to be imposed upon us?

Any domain in which disruptive, large-scale change is emerging provides us an opportunity to make a choice about building our future rather than having it imposed upon us. The impact of artificial intelligence is just such a disruptive change. Algorithms and machine intelligence have already entered our lives and are embedded in, for instance, social media, online shopping and commonly used apps like Uber and Waze.

AI’s presence has recently entered the common conversation, mostly due to the accessibility of ChatGPT, the application that’s as easy to use as a Google search. Questions regarding the impact of AI have proliferated rapidly. What will it do to education? What facets of the workforce will be replaced by machines? What about privacy, security, health care …?

Such questions only scratch the surface, though, when it comes to the potential for machine intelligence. It is possible that no part of our lives will go untouched. The choices we are faced with today in relation to AI are comparable to the ones we were facing before the pandemic. We can either innovate and find ways to integrate AI into our lives, building our future, or allow its disruptive force to dictate our future for us. The foundation for taking charge of our future comes through an understanding of and practical approach to the roles of disruption, innovation and leadership (DIL). Understanding these factors requires an appreciation of their interconnectedness and complexities.


Disruption sends seismic waves through society, shaking up norms and processes and leading to transformative change with broad technological, social and economic implications.

The power of disruption lies in its ability to drive evolution and progress. From COVID-19 response strategies to climate change adaptation, synthetic biology and the proliferation of accessible AI platforms, these innovations are shaping our society at an exponential rate. The pandemic triggered a massive upheaval, but this should not be considered a threat. Instead, disruption should be seen as an opportunity to inspire innovation and advancement.

In the world of technology, disruption has played a crucial role in transforming paradigms. Digital technology, for example, has fundamentally altered how we communicate and exchange information, changing the media, retail and advertising industries. Now, AI stands on the brink of another revolution, capable of reshaping many fields by automating routine tasks, enhancing health care through predictive diagnostics and giving rise to new forms of engagement and service delivery in education, public services and transportation.

Besides technological changes, disruption also deeply affects our sociocultural fabric. The internet has redefined human interaction, creating global connections and raising concerns about privacy and cyberbullying. As AI and automation integrate into societal structures, they bring change, reconfiguring employment dynamics, reshaping skill requirements, and provoking ethical debates about data privacy, algorithmic equity and the moral responsibility of autonomous systems.

Disruption profoundly affects the economy, offering a range of possibilities and dangers. For example, e-commerce has already shown its capacity to disrupt the conventional retail industry. At the same time, artificial intelligence is about to change the job market in a revolutionary way and reshape the distribution of wealth.

While predicting disruption accurately is challenging, we can prepare for it by cultivating key skills, adopting a strategic mindset, and fostering an adaptive organizational culture. The critical skills to prepare for disruption include adaptability and resilience, creativity and innovation, critical thinking, digital fluency, emotional intelligence and a commitment to lifelong learning. The same innovative spirit that guided us through the pandemic can now show us the potential disruptions AI poses. Rather than fearing job losses due to AI, we should envision a world where humans and machines work together harmoniously and create strong systems to protect data in an AI-dominated world.

We will increasingly see the expansion of the generalist versus specialist debate. Of course, as usually happens, the correct approach will depend on context. Specialists’ deep knowledge and skills in a specific area make them invaluable in situations where high expertise is needed. However, they risk becoming obsolete if their specialty is heavily disrupted and they cannot transfer their skills. With their broader range of skills and knowledge, generalists may find it easier to adapt to disruptions because the breadth of their experiences to generate creative solutions allows them to switch between different roles and tasks flexibly.

Leaders can foster this by promoting a culture of innovation, continuous learning and cross-functional collaboration, thereby preparing their workforce for any disruption that may come their way. We are at a pivotal moment in history comparable to the invention of the printing press, modern agriculture and medical breakthroughs. The effects of climate change, synthetic biology and AI have the potential to alter our society drastically. We can either deny these changes or take control of our future and lead the way through this disruption. We must embrace disruption as a driver of innovation, with leadership guiding us forward.


Here is the thing about innovation: It is both a cause of disruption and the key to combating it.
Innovation is the least understood and the most widely used word in the business context and is positioned as the panacea to all ills that face our society. However, most innovation efforts fail, not because they are lacking in intent, but because they lack a clear purpose, process, people and governance.

What is innovation? It is the introduction of a new idea, product, process, service or business model that adds new value. Innovation can be of three kinds. Let us take the example of the telephone. When the phone was introduced, it was a disruptive innovation. It changed how we communicated, led to social, cultural, and economic structures, and created a new world order. Then came the smartphone. It is a phone, but it is also a multipurpose device: a camera, a torchlight and a music player.

This is an example of a transformational innovation, where an existing product was redefined and ended up upsetting the established world order and creating new industries. Now, we see incremental improvements in the capabilities of a smartphone: It comes in different sizes, has faster chips and has become a health-monitoring device.

Most innovation is incremental. We would argue that incremental innovation creates the engine for transformational and disruptive innovation.

Let us take the case of AI, which is a result of many incremental and transformational innovations over time: large language models, text, image and voice recognition, machine learning, robotics, high-speed networks, digital circuits, computer chips and more. What is also worth noting is that many of these innovations were considered disruptive at the time. The key takeaway is that the world continues the innovation cycle of improvement, transformation and disruption, and in the process, continues to advance the human race and create new value.

However, innovation is hard to manage, especially in organizations. Outside of the traditional R&D process, the innovation agenda is seldom clear, yet widely practiced. This results in failed initiatives, frustrated employees and wasted money.

We are experiencing the same with AI. Absent a clear agenda and mandate, there is a hodgepodge of initiatives emerging all over organizations, some propelled by curiosity and good intentions, others by the hubris of business leaders, and more peddled by fearmongers. It is, therefore, important to manage innovation with a clear agenda and supporting process, people and governance. And that requires strong leadership.

It is the leadership that has the responsibility to create clarity of purpose around innovation, set a clear innovation agenda with pragmatic milestones and create teams to deliver on that agenda. And then become leader coaches. This requires our leaders to develop change agility and a learning and coaching mindset.


Effective leadership is always central to group or organizational success but takes on even greater importance during times of change, as we’re now seeing with the presence of AI. Leaders who recognize the inevitability of disruption and see AI as a technological development to be integrated into our lives will provide a service far greater than those who attempt to block or stop it, an effort as futile as attempting to stop the use of the internet.

Too often, efforts to identify successful leaders have produced little more than preferences for leadership styles or judgments about personal charisma. Yet, it is not hard to come up with examples of successful leaders who showed very different styles or who were not necessarily charismatic.

Think of the difference between President Kennedy’s inspiring declaration that the U.S. would land on the moon in less than 10 years and Gandhi’s peaceful but powerful stance in leading India’s independence from British rule. Other than their respective effectiveness and ultimate success, there was arguably little overlap in terms of personalities or leadership styles. It seems we are better served by embracing leaders who speak directly to a vision for building our future than to those who fit an image of what a successful leader looks like.

Providing a vision is more than simply imagining an endpoint, no matter how clear or convincing it appears. Competent leaders integrate both current and emerging environmental demands with the history, values and current practices of those they are leading. They present a future that is innovative yet accessible; the collective needs to feel capable and motivated to build such a future for itself.

As part of providing direction that values the power of AI, effective leaders will need to facilitate broad-ranging connections and partnerships, sharing their vision with those outside their immediate organization or community. We need leaders who will recognize that collectives and networks hold the potential for far greater impact than will occur through the actions of any single organization. The integration of varying talents and resources will bring forth ideas and innovations that only occur via partnerships.

Of course, far-reaching interrelationships will also bring greater complexity than would be found within single groups or organizations. Embracing this complexity and dealing with the accompanying challenges are the very spots where our most skilled and competent leaders will focus. Prioritizing connections will set the basis for innovative thought and action, and will characterize our next generation of leaders, those guiding us through the emergence of the AI era.

The DIL Triad

Disruption, innovation and leadership have been a constant of human civilization. This triad is the wheel of human evolution and is more than the sum of its parts. At times, disruption has been forced upon us, whether it was the bubonic plague, the financial meltdown, the world wars or COVID-19. It took strong leadership and an innovative mindset to build a human condition that was better than what we were before. Similarly, in times of peace, innovations such as the steam engine, the printing press, the personal computer, the internet and smart devices have disrupted the normal, creating a new normal, and leaders worldwide have maintained a world order where such innovation could thrive. At the same time, Alexander the Great, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and many others have taken it on themselves to drive change that has disrupted existing world orders and unleashed new structures that have given rise to new sets of innovations in political and economic structures. We can be confident that the disruption, innovation and leadership cycle will continue to shape the human future. AI is the latest one. Our choice: recognize, prepare and participate in shaping the future or allow it to impose itself upon us. 

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of In the Lead magazine, from Buccino Leadership Institute. The bi-annual magazine focuses on leadership perspectives from the field of health care, with content that is curated from leaders across the industry who share lessons learned from real-world experiences.

Categories: Business, Science and Technology

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