Disruptive Leadership: Where Innovation & Agility Drive Success

Michael Whitney

Despite any negative connotations surrounding the word “disruptive” or how the phrase “disruptive leadership” has become a buzzword for many, we believe it represents the antithesis of complacency and can be an important catalyst for innovation. There is no denying the differences these leaders bring to any business environment, especially in the food-ag value chain.

Recently, Michael Whitney, consultant to Kincannon & Reed and Managing Partner, sat down with global talent leaders, Jennifer Hall, VP, Talent Acquisition at Impossible Foods, Mary Alice Feinstein, Chief People Officer at AeroFarms, Cristina Rohr, Principal of Investments with S2G Ventures, and Andrea Tang, Global Director of Talent Attraction at ZX Ventures, and discussed disruptive leadership.

What is disruptive leadership and why it is important in an organization?

To understand what disruptive leadership is and the value it delivers, disruption must be defined accurately. Disruption means ‘to drastically alter, interrupt, or create a disturbance.’ Traditionally, that would be considered something to avoid, but it is not the case today. At least not with a business development lens applied. The value of disruption is that it allows leaders to break free of conventional thinking and processes.

With that in mind, the phrase disruptive leadership makes more sense. It is not leadership that runs wild, without direction or discipline. Healthy disruptive leadership looks like cohesive teams focused on an established mission, not a specific solution.

In the recent panel discussion focused on disruptive leadership, Jennifer Hall referenced Harvard Professor and business consultant Clayton Christensen’s work on disruption in business, stating that if an established company pursues growth in a new market, the odds of success are six times greater, and the revenue potential is 20 times greater than in incremental growth in an established market.1

It’s easy to stick to what’s comfortable – and plenty of companies do that very thing. They may even have sizeable revenue doing so. Not every company will be successful in their bid to win a new market or capture significant market share with a new product. There will be companies that hold steady despite competition, that’s the nature of business. But at some point, many who have chosen to stay rooted where they are will have missed a massive opportunity because the fear of the unknown was too much.2

While new organizations can more efficiently adapt to a disruptive and innovative business strategy, companies of any age and size can do so. Finding the right disruptive leaders to head the charge into a new market or product development is one of the most critical components to ensuring the shift is successful.

Characteristics of a good disruptive leader

There are marked differences between a good leader and a good disruptive leader.  

While there are several shared characteristics – such as exceptional communication skills, ability to be decisive, and good interpersonal skills – there are some important differences.

One trait that sets apart true disruptive leaders   is their lack of commitment to a specific solution. This may sound like a bad thing, but during the panel discussion Andrea Tang explained the importance of this particular characteristic.   

“One thing we look for is people who fall in love with the problem and not the solution,” Tang said. “They’re really out chasing that consumer problem and have the ability to pivot and not get stuck in their ego.”

Other core traits that emerged from the panelists: 

  • Driven and focused – both on the problem and executing the solution
  • Resilient and committed – push boundaries and seek feedback to improve
  • Agile and adaptable – profound ability to move past failures, regroup and try again

“A true disruptive leader is an individual who doesn’t let a failure or perceived failure stop them,” Hall said. The most successful disruptive leaders are those who are ‘big thinkers’ and ‘big doers.’ As Hall noted, these leaders often drive big results. 

How to foster an innovative environment

In today’s staggeringly competitive business climate, organizations can’t just embrace disruptive leadership and innovation. They must spend time actively cultivating an environment and a culture that anticipates and expects disruption.

There are many ways to encourage this type of environment, but focusing on the following points is a good start:

  • Listen to everyone’s input – ensure that teams and individuals are comfortable speaking up
  • Focus on team wins – your idea doesn’t matter more than the rest of your team’s, a win is a win
  • Prepare for failure – not every idea works, and you need to be prepared to learn and move on

When discussing disruptive leaders, panelist Mary Alice Feinstein said she focuses on the word resilience and how that individual trait is viewed at AeroFarms. “Resilient leaders are willing and open to taking feedback and they don’t get stuck when there’s pushback. Part of our culture is pushing boundaries. We push each other to excel and grow and that’s what we look for in disruptive leaders.”

This kind of culture is built one conversation at a time, one decision at a time, and is continually evolving as new team members are introduced.

Furthermore, organizations and teams that value disruptive leadership and embrace innovation need to set expectations with those new team members from the start. Those expectations should be evident throughout: from properly writing a job description and candidate profile, to the interview process where a company’s core values and culture are shared. 

 And culture is more important than ever before. If an individual doesn’t fit the culture or share in the values of an organization, there will be mounting frustrations and significant problems – no matter how innovative and driven they are. Ensuring the organizational culture is accurately represented in documents and throughout the interview process is as important as asking the right questions during interviews. 


Disruptive leadership and innovation are here to stay because consumers demand it. Evolving consumer   demands have created problems that disrupters have focused on, and created new markets and opportunities for organizations to innovate and deliver. New markets and new solutions do not come without strong, willing leadership: willing to take a risk, willing to fail, willing to amplify success, willing to disrupt. 

Panelist Bios

Jennifer Hall, VP, Talent Acquisition at Impossible Foods. Jennifer brings more than 20 years of experience identifying talent and building diverse senior leadership teams. Before joining Impossible Foods, Jennifer’s experience was in recruiting leadership in high tech, medical device, professional services and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to joining Impossible, she served as the Director of Global Talent Acquisition with Intuitive.

Mary Alice Feinstein, Chief People Officer at AeroFarms. Mary Alice has been charged with finding disruptive leaders for AeroFarms since the organization was founded in 2004 and started challenging the food industry on how food can be grown. Her experience includes 12 years with Google. She is passionate about career development, coaching and most importantly identifying talent that brings experiences, thought processes and an agility to AeroFarms that is different than traditional leadership. 

Andrea Tang, Global Director of Talent Attraction at ZX Ventures. Andrea  has held several roles building talent systems and teams to help the fund and portfolio companies scale. Before that, she led People Strategy at the Momofuku Restaurant Group and was the HR Director for their sister bakery, Milk Bar. Prior to her foray into the food world, she held various roles at Marsh & McLennan Companies in international HR strategy and organizational design. In her spare time, you can find Andrea eating her way through her travels, on a hike in upstate NY or working with causes that are important to her including literacy and hunger. Andrea holds a master’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University and her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Queen’s University in Canada.

Cristina Rohr, Principal of Investments with S2G Ventures. Cristina’s portfolio work ranges from agriculture focused investments in genetics, crop protection, soil health and digital/IOT to consumer facing brands. Cristina has nearly 10 years of experience in sourcing, executing, managing and exiting venture and private equity investments. Before joining S2G Ventures, Cristina was a private equity investor with the Edgewater Funds in Chicago and, prior to that, with First Reserve in London, where she focused on leveraged buyout investments in the natural resources industry. Cristina also previously worked for Citigroup Investment Banking Division in London. Cristina graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree with a double major in Mathematical and Computational Sciences and Economics. She earned her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.


  1. Christensen Institute 
  2. Harvard Business Review – Christensen Article  
  3. Harvard Business Review – What is Disruptive Innovation
  4. McKinsey – Creating an Innovation Culture