“Leading in an era of constant disruption and times of crises would require a distinct set of competencies and these include but are not limited to, a combination of variables such as visionary and entrepreneurial skills, innovation-driven mindset, and experimentation (disruptive mentality), cognitive readiness and critical thinking (mental agility), emotional resilience, empathy, and social skills (people agility), driving for success (results agility), and resilience and adaptability (change agility).”

– Sattar Bawany (2023)


Disruption is happening everywhere and in every aspect of our lives. It is happening at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in modern history impacting diverse industries, from financial services to retail, media, logistics & supply chain, manufacturing, education, professional services, and healthcare & life sciences. Leaders are finding it challenging to navigate the near-insurmountable challenges resulting from the impact of these disruptive events on their operations and have to reinvent their operating and business models to ensure their survival.

Organizations all over the world face uncertain futures in a global business environment that is highly disruptive and increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (collectively known as VUCA). (See Figure 1)

Figure 1: The New Normal of the World of VUCA

We face a new era of radical uncertainty and disruption brought about by other challenges such as climate change, financial crises, terrorism, Brexit, demographic changes in the labour market, health/disease risk, mass migration and rapid developments in digital technology and its impact on transformation at the workplace. The management of shocks and crises is becoming an everyday occurrence. Organizations also need to be agile, leverage opportunities and drive innovation to remain competitive in the face of challenging conditions. 1 (Bawany 2020)

What Makes a Disruptive Digital Leader?

Digital transformation is occurring at an unprecedented pace, creating a more connected world, and providing new opportunities for businesses to grow and create value. The disruptive impact of technology on organizations of every size and sector is infinite, and we know the pace of disruption is accelerating. Leaders must be ready to lead in the digital age.

It’s also worth noting that today’s organizations are in different places on the road to digital transformation. If you are feeling stuck in your digital transformation work, you are not alone. One of the hardest questions in digital transformation is how to get over the initial humps from vision to execution. Even organizations that are well down the digital transformation path face tough ongoing hurdles, like budgeting, talent struggles, and culture change.

Resolving these challenges would require “disruptive digital leaders” who are visionary when it comes to the technology frontier. However, all decisions are still rooted in fiscal discipline and overall enterprise mission. This demands a risk-tolerant mindset—future technologies are volatile, and user adoption is challenging to predict. However, a true disruptive digital leader is driven by the challenge and potential for creating new business value by harnessing breakthrough technology.

Digital transformation can be viewed as the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business resulting in fundamental changes to how businesses operate and how they deliver value to customers. Beyond that, it’s a cultural change that requires organizations to challenge the status quo continuously, experiment often, and get comfortable with failure, as could be observed in organizations such as Microsoft, Starbucks, Grab and DBS Bank as featured in the book ‘Leadership in Disruptive Times’ 1 (Bawany, 2020).

A survey of the current research and perspectives on high potentials who could be future disruptive digital leaders (e.g. Chamorro-Premuzic 2017 2; Charan, Drotter, and Noel 2001 3; Corporate Leadership Council 2005 4; Ready, Conger, and Hill 2010 5; Silzer and Church 2009 6; Bawany 2019 7; Hagemann and Bawany 2016 8), as well as similar research on disruptive and digital leadership (e.g., Gibson, West, and Pastrovich 2020 9; Korn Ferry 2019 10; Freakley 2019 11; Mortlock et al. 2019 12; Harvard Business Review 2015 13), indicates specific disruptive leadership qualities.

These include but are not limited to, a combination of variables such as visionary and entrepreneurial skills, innovation-driven mindset and experimentation (disruptive mentality), cognitive readiness and critical thinking (mental agility), emotional resilience, empathy, and social skills (people agility), driving for success (results agility), and resilience and adaptability (change agility). (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: The ‘Disruptive Digital Leader’ Competencies


As technology continues to disrupt the workplace, one of the key factors that would impact the success of the digital transformation is having the right team of disruptive digital leaders who can lead the digital transformation implementation successfully. Organizations should respond to this challenge by building new pools of skilled digital talent. To do so, they must identify or what are the skills and attributes of these high-potential employees and assess and develop them into disruptive digital leaders who will lead successful digital transformation initiatives at the workplace.


  1. Bawany S 2020, Leadership in Disruptive Times, New York, NY: Business Express Press (BEP) Inc., LLC.
  2. Chamorro-Premuzic, T S Adler, and R B Kaiser, 3 October 2017, “What Science Says About Identifying High-Potential Employees?” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing.
  3. Charan R, S Drotter, and J L Noel, 2001. The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Corporate Leadership Council, 2010, Six Mistakes that Drive Away your Rising Stars. Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board.
  5. Ready, D A, J A Conger, and L A Hill, June 2010, “Are you a High Potential?” Harvard Business Review 88, pp. 78–84.
  6. Silzer R, and A H Church, 2009a. “The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential.” Industrial and Organisational Psychology 2, pp. 377–412.
  7. Bawany S 2019, Transforming the Next Generation of Leaders: Developing Future Leaders for a Disruptive, Digital-Driven Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), New York, NY: Business Express Press (BEP) Inc., LLC.
  8. Hagemann B, and S Bawany, 2016b, “Enhancing Leadership and Executive Development—Latest Trends & Best Practices.” Leadership Excellence Essentials 33, no. 3, pp. 9–11.
  9. Gibson P, K W West, and R Pastrovich, 1 April 2020. Disruptive Leaders: An Overlooked Source of Organizational Resilience, Heidrick & Struggles Know-ledge Center, Heidrick & Struggles International.
  10. Korn Ferry, 2019, The Self-Disruptive Leader, Korn Ferry Institute.
  11. Freakley S, 4 April 2019, “7 Skills Every Leader Needs in Times of Disruption.” The World Economic Forum.
  12. Mortlock L, et al. 2019, Transformation Leadership in a Digital Era, Ernst & Young LLP.
  13. Harvard Business Review, 2015, “Driving Digital Transformation: New Skills for Leaders, New Role for the CIO.” Harvard Business Review Analytic Services Report, Harvard Business School Publishing