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The Thunderbird Global Series on Disruption

“May You Live In Interesting Times” was meant as a curse in ancient China. Now, we must think of it as a prophecy.

Disruption and losing look the same from a distance.

When you get disrupted, it doesn’t knock you out of the game, it knocks you out of the stadium. When you merely lose, you get traded to another team. When you are disrupted, you never play the game again.

In theory, the warning signs are clear. But we often can’t detect them as we dismiss the warning. Abraham Maslow did us a favor by describing the five stages of grieving and not surprisingly, they parallel the five stages of disruption denial: ignorance, arrogance, indifference, resistance, and tolerance.

The stages are a useful way to think about how we deal with disruption. Most of us start out in ignorance or arrogance and we don’t give disruption its due. At least not at first. Then things get dicey, so we try to feign indifference so people will think we’re confident it’s nothing and we really can’t be bothered. Please change the subject. I’m so bored, right? You’ve heard that before.

Then things get worse, as they always do, so we trot out those old standbys, anger and insult. How dare they enter my world and tell me what to do? Don’t they know who I am? (they do, the answer, you’re the one who’s about to be disrupted).

When finally we are shown the door, we now have no choice but to deal with disruption, although we don’t like it, and so we tolerate it (a better word for this than Maslow’s acceptance).

Most disruption is self-inflicted.

We invite disruption into our lives and our careers, or if not, we post mark the invitation. In fairness, disruption is hard to see in advance. There are inklings, each of which is a subset of the one that preceded it. But individually they look like something else, and most often, they look like losing. That makes it hard to detect. That part is very dangerous.

What we find when we are disrupted is we are forced to transform ourselves. But when we just ‘lose’ we keep coming back for more. That is what makes disruption so powerful. By the time we recognize we are not losing but being disrupted, it is too late. Losing only amplifies disruption because by the time it is known, the game is beyond recovering.

Take the example of the mobil phone. My friend the unicorn angel investor, Gil Penchina, describes why this greatest of all disruptors crept up on smart people who understood the business, just not the timing and year after year tried to jump on the bandwagon only to lose their shirts:

Think about how many times in the last 20 years you’ve heard, “This year mobile’s going to be big.” I heard it in 1991. I heard it in 1997. I heard it in 2000 and I heard it again in 2003. Each time they were teams with good products going after that market and failing miserably. Then all of a sudden, it’s 2006 and the iPhone comes out and boom… Mobile is BIG.

When did we let politicians decide what was risky?

The global financial crisis began as a case of juvenile risk calculation. Only four year olds believe trees grow to the sky, right? But as troublesome as that is, it led to huge losses, not disruption. We should have turned the nose up and out of the spiral, as we have done before. Why did it go so horribly wrong this time?

The crunch came when politicians compounded the greed by lining the coffers of special interests with cheap mortgage money and fees. But before turning off the lights on the country’s economy, they did what any good politician would do knowing his head was near the chopping block: hold Senate hearings, then name an anti-banking law after yourself (Dodd Frank), and make sure to pin the blame on everyone’s favorite ogre, bankers. Get the Attorney General to fine them a cool quarter of a trillion, half a trillion if you add legal fees. Then divvy that out to special interests and people in your party running for election. The media didn’t notice, by the way. What everyone did recognize is America paid a steep price, including lost savings, homes, and lives.

It was as stupid as it was unimaginable. End of story, right?

People confuse disruption’s effect with its cause, and who caused it. This allows those who created the disruption to shift it to someone else.

Disruption is rarely intentional and generally not criminal or evil (answering the common question, why aren’t bankers in prison). Disruption thrives in a petri dish of bad judgment. The ones who are disrupted are just like the rest of us, only they run businesses or governments, so when they go down, they take us with them. That part sucks. We wouldn’t mind it so much if it was just a Netflix series, right?

Defining disruption for this era.

Our purpose is neither to relitigate the agony of these disruptive economic forces or claim they are susceptible to ‘better luck next time’ wishes. Our challenge is to define disruption, identify its path, and help inspire young people to conquer it by preparing not just ourselves, but our teams and our countries. We must begin by recognizing the people we trusted were compromised, so we better start to seek to transform ourselves before it is too late.

We needed two a vital skills in short supply in the C suite as it was in the Oval Office, a bookmaker’s ability to judge odds and an ego that can tell when you are playing above your level. Smart and humble may sound like old fashioned virtues, but they beat the alternatives of chaos and totalitarianism.

For someone like Warren Buffett, disruption is paradise because he hedges against it better than anyone else in the world. It is why he “tap dances to work every morning.” He only thinks about the long term, and as he says, his core competency is knowing he does not know the future. So instead of conflicts, he places bets against those who are conflicted. Think of those attributes as his ‘disruption prevention’ kit.

I’m pretty sure he also knocks on wood and carries a rabbit’s foot.

Author’s Bio

Jeff Cunningham is an advocate for enlightened global leadership, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, startup founder, digital content CEO, and ran an internet venture capital fund.

He travels the globe in search of iconic leaders. As an interviewer/host, he created a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, now co-produced by @Thunderbird, featuring mega moguls from Warren Buffett to Jeff Immelt. His articles on leadership have been featured in the Arizona Republic, LinkedIn and Medium via JeffCunningham.com.

His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), Myway.com, and CareerTrack.com; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.