Incito Leadership and Executive Coaching


What makes a disruptive leader? Insights From Former Apple & Pepsi President, John Sculley

Photo: Laurence Labat—Sygma/Corbis

Photo: Laurence Labat—Sygma/Corbis


Disruptive leadership is different than any other kind. These leaders don’t just guide teams but create change in industry, often inspiring commitment and dedication from their people.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Sculley, former Apple CEO and Pepsi President and Co-Founder of Zeta Global (‘Zeta’). After learning more about Zeta, the data-driven marketing technology business he co-founded alongside David Steinberg in 2007, and his numerous other health technology companies, Sculley shared with me what he believes are key attributes of disruptive change leaders.

Have an Insatiable Curiosity

From a young age, Sculley had an insatiable appetite for learning. This curiosity fuelled his rise in Pepsi where he started as a truck driver in 1967, becoming the foundation for his career throughout the company, eventually leading them as President from 1977 – 1982 prior to his joining Apple in 1983.

Sculley states that starting as a truck driver, the first employee Pepsi had hired with an MBA, was the most important thing that could have happened to him in preparation for his promotion as the youngest-ever VP-Marketing in 1970. Not knowing anything about the beverage business when he started, he had to work, read, and learn everything he could about the industry. When delivering shipments to customers, he was in the shops, gaining an understanding of who Pepsi’s customers were, and, as he continued to learn and understand the numbers, he was having better conversations with them. The insights he learned as a driver became the foundation of the ideas he and his team put together in their marketing plans, such as the creation of the two-litre bottle, offering more ounces for consumers, and the Pepsi Challenge, creating a market of consumer engagement with their brand.

It is this continuous need to learn that guides his strategic thinking in all his roles and maintains that it is crucial for leaders. As Sculley highlights, “strategic thinking is knowing the business. The only way to think more broadly is to go and learn different angles and points of views.”  

Consensus Leadership Won’t Work

In our interview, Sculley highlights that disruption requires autocratic leaders. At first, I was shocked to hear this, particularly since Sculley also highlights the importance of working with quality talent (more in the next point) for disruptive change to actually be implemented.

“It takes disrupters willing to take the risk and have the courage to make mistakes,” says Sculley. “The most important things happen from mistakes made, not successes.” And, an environment of consensus often avoids the type of risk required for disruptive ideas to take hold. However, disruption, Sculley explains, requires an autocratic leader who is open to hearing different viewpoints, consulting experts prior to making their decision on how to move forward.

While a disruptive leader is typically autocratic, they take the time to surround themselves with the talent to bring the disruptive idea to reality, including changing a bottle to grow market share, or understanding how to integrate technology into how we operate with the world.  

Hire Quality Talent

Leaders cannot do everything on their own. This is simply not a scalable business model. Sculley himself admits that, early on, he believed he could do things on his own, but quickly learned this wasn’t realistic. There’s simply more impact a company can have when it relies on a combination of its’ people’s strengths.

Interestingly, Sculley attributed strong leadership to properly articulating a company’s compelling message for their reason for being, or “noble cause,” in addition to recognizing what skills and personalities are required. Whether leading a small team on a project or an entire industry changing corporation, success is dependent upon the talent and their commitment to the noble cause. More than anything else, take the time to find and hire the right talent and mindset to support the company’s message.

Empower Your People

Empower your quality talent with the ability to say, “no.” There’s nothing more powerful than a small, well-aligned team and this comes from each person understanding their impact in the bigger vision. Each individual knows that their title isn’t important because they believe in the vision. And, as a leader, you would have hired those who have the talent and the ability to see different perspectives, then empowering them to add their full value. There’s no stopping a company when everyone is empowered and committed to the same vision.

Ultimately, to be a disruptive leader, one doesn’t need to know all the answers. A disruptive leader leads by always being curious about opportunities, knowing risks will be taken, and through sharing the vision with the right talent. The next disruptive leader may already be in the delivery truck, gaining a new perspective for disruption.





Jenn Lofgren