The human factor in disruptive leadership: Five tips to help your team in transition

Disruption has become the name of the game in business, whether it’s seen in the practices of proactive company leaders seeking a competitive advantage or as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But disruption isn’t just about new products or services; the success of the massive change depends largely on the disruptive leader and how he or she manages all the people involved – from rank-and-file employees to board members, said Benjamin Breier, ForbesBooks author of “Intentional Disruption: Leadership Lessons in Healthcare, Business, and Beyond.”

“You simply cannot be successfully disruptive without understanding who as well as what you’re disrupting,” said Breier, who as the former CEO at Kindred Healthcare LLC oversaw multiple acquisitions. “The path is strewn with disrupters who didn’t have a real understanding of what the implications of their disruptive actions might be.

“An organization must be built on the bedrock foundation of its mission, culture and values. It is critically important, particularly during tough times that come with disruption, to know that the organization is built to accomplish the right objectives and that the leader is in step with all of his people. Up and down the organization, it’s personal relationships that matter.”

Breier offers these five tips to help CEOs manage employees, company leaders and board members when leading a business through disruption:

Foster open communication. When Breier was CEO of Kindred Healthcare LLC, the company acquired a publicly traded home health and hospice company, Gentiva Health Services, in a hostile takeover. Beforehand, Breier focused on communication at all levels that could ease the transition and build trust.

“When you are attempting something as disruptive as a takeover of a public company, where your widget is people and the product is providing care, you have to maintain stability in the operations and the product itself,” he said. “If I wasn’t able to do that, then being a disruptor would just be disruptive. I established the case to the rank-and-file that the acquisition would be a positive step for their teams. The communications rallied their company behind the deal.”

Respect that each employee and manager is different; lead accordingly. Managing an entire team during disruption in particular requires a personalized and customized approach by the CEO, Breier said. Team members are motivated by different types of actions, and as supporting evidence he references a quote by Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson, who said, “I treat all my players differently.”

“As Jimmy Johnson understood, it’s about knowing how to treat people individually and using the right motivators that impact them,” Breier said. “Some like to be pulled, some like to be pushed, and some just like to be left alone. The job of a good CEO is to identify those individual traits and get the most out of the collective team.”

Build relationships, starting with managing up. As the top leader who reports to board members, Breier said the CEO is the eyes on the ground, seeing things in real time and experiencing situations in ways the board cannot. “For this reason,” Breier said, “a good CEO will develop personal relationships with board members to understand what really motivates them. These proactive measures ensure that when you need support or votes, the board knows and trusts you.”

Manage down. Breier defines this approach as making sure each team member knows their role and is positioned properly.

“It means deploying each employee and manager in strategic ways that best suit the individual, which requires the top leader to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each and empower them to do what they do best,” he said.

Manage sideways. One of the best ways for a CEO to cultivate relationships with team members, Breier said, is by not asking them to do things the CEO wouldn’t be willing to do.

“Going a step further,” he said, “a leader getting his or her hands dirty and showing a willingness to be gritty are powerful motivativing tools to push teams through difficult situations.”

“Disruptive leadership is a team sport,” Breier said. “Any leader who wants to manage risks in a disruptive environment has to have a solid and supportive team to survive.”

About Benjamin Breier
Benjamin Breier (, the ForbesBooks author of “Intentional Disruption: Leadership lessons in Healthcare, Business, and Beyond,” is the former CEO of Kindred Healthcare LLC. He serves on the board for the Federation of American Hospitals, is a member of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council and is a founding member and chairman of the board of the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council. He oversaw multiple acquisitions that turned Kindred into the largest provider of post-acute healthcare services in the country. Modern Healthcare magazine named Breier one of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare on three occasions and, in 2010, rec­ognized him as one of the young leaders aged 40 and under making a difference in healthcare. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, Breier received an MBA and MHA from the University of Miami.