Why disruptive leaders fail – and how to stop it happening

“Move fast and break things.” Mark Zuckerberg’s famous instruction to the Facebook team continues to resonate as advice for anyone wanting to change their market and the wider world. Around soundbites like this has sprung an archetype: the behoodied twenty-something entrepreneur, obsessed only with his or her mission — and willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

Disruption is not a gentle art, and perhaps that’s how it should be — in the words of Steve Jobs, we are all here “to put a dent in the universe”. And incredible things can happen when insight is not watered down by experience. As Facebook’s success shows, youth is not always wasted on the young.

But the concept of moving fast and breaking things bears deeper examination. What is it acceptable to break? Why? And under what circumstances?

Founders Circle survey of 25 hyper-growing startups — including a number of unicorns valued at $1 billion or more — found that a remarkable 25% of their employees leave in any given year. This is in excess of twice the average: according to LinkedIn, most firms lose only around 11% of their workforce each year, with high-turnover roles such as coding experiencing a rate that is only marginally higher than this.

Wherever there is job loss there tends to be human pain. Yet it is not hard to find apologists for the high turnover rate of high growth firms — including many who believe it’s a virtual prerequisite for success. In many entrepreneurial value systems, it seems that you are either part of the steamroller or part of the pavement.

In the grand scheme of things, does that matter? The answer is: yes, more than you might think — and to your own business as well.

Innovation is ultimately a human enterprise, to do with our ability to inspire each other, think creatively and collaborate. Every human being is unique, with incomparable value to offer to a workplace. Managing that value effectively is the key to ensuring survival. And let’s not forget that 90% of startups fail.

What explains this scorched earth attitude? Start with psychology — and the clues it offers about leadership behaviour. The Enneagram is a psychometric test that describes patterns in how people conceptualize the world and manage their emotions. Disruptive behaviour can be found in a number of the 9 personality types, with type 8 (The Challenger) being particularly high indexing in this regard.

According to the Enneagram Institute, Challengers are “self-confident, decisive, wilful, and confrontational”. These are all helpful ingredients for disruptive thought and action. But, when performing at an average level, for example under the stress that hyper-growth tends to bring, they can also “become highly combative and intimidating to get their way: confrontational, belligerent, creating adversarial relationships… [They will] use threats and reprisals to get obedience from others, to keep others off balance and insecure”. This is not a recipe for a happy and productive work environment.

Moving fast and breaking things requires an engaged team who feel able to bring their unique experiences, skills, perspectives and relationships to bear on complex problems. This gives rise to a paradox: delivering disruption is easier in stable environments that are characterised by psychological safety.

Helping people to perform at their imperfect and brilliant best is an exercise in sensitivity rather than speed. It requires a maturity of outlook — an ability to recognise where our own disruptive impulses might be doing more harm than good. It involves being able to enter the zone of uncomfortable conversations, and staying there until solutions are found. More than anything, it requires humility.

In practical terms, disruptive leaders need to be contained. The self-aware ones know this; the exceptional ones get proactive and build this environment. Containment is partly a matter of governance: structures and processes need putting in place to ensure that not every bit of friction results in fragmentation. It is also a matter of emotional management. Evolving the ability to self-regulate is one of the principal challenges of leadership. As every day brings new stresses and unfamiliar situations, this is a development journey with no end.

It is hypocritical to argue, as many scale disrupters do, that you are upending industries for the benefit of humanity if your endeavours leave a pile of human roadkill in their wake. The universe is there to be dented. The same should never be true of your people.

Originally published on Forbes.com