Distinctive Leadership in the Digital Age
Faced with unprecedented technological acceleration, leadership in digital settings has arguably become a game changer for many organisations. We look at how the rules of the game have evolved and what these changes mean for organisational leadership
How do leaders lead in a world that is digital by default?
Faced with unprecedented technological acceleration, leadership in digital settings has arguably become a game changer for many organisations. While business models and technology landscapes are transforming, executives often perceive that their leadership practices are caught in a time warp. They wonder what it takes to thrive and survive at the helm of their organisations in this new era of digitalisation. We look at how the rules of the game have evolved and what these changes mean for organisational leadership.
In search of a digital leadership formula. For any leader in today’s business world, the fundamental question to start with is how to engage with each other in the digital context and lead with a human-centred but technology-enabled style.* If people are the focal point of leadership, along with customer centricity, business value, market power and organisational agility - to name just a few, then leadership needs to change fundamentally in order to ensure that the human factor transcends the multiplicity of digital interfaces. Leading people through intermediate layers of technology may come easy to some managers, while for others this task represents a black box. Irrespectively of how much it is part of an individual’s DNA, there are certain peculiarities – “The 5 Cs of digital engagement” – that leaders may wish to take into account:
- Connectivity: As a starting point, staying connected leveraging the full spectrum of available technologies is crucial for organisational success. However, connectivity requires technical proficiency. Many leaders have acted upon this need and upskilled their organisations to be able to use contemporary platforms. As many applications are based on self-service formats, leaders need to bring a healthy dose of digital savviness and do-it-yourself attitude in order to become operational.
- Content: Once leaders have familiarized with the technology, it is important for them to generate content and push it through the channels. Relevant content provides leaders with a legitimate reason to interact. However, doing so depends on good ideas. The more inspiring and thought provoking the content, the higher the probability that it leads to dialogue and exchange of thoughts. Thus, leaders need to carve out creative space to instil ideas into their leadership practices.
- Cadence: Another major aspect refers to the orchestration of the interaction. Timing is key and the cost of delay is high. These principles are all the more true in digital leadership. Building and maintaining a compelling virtual presence as a leader also depends on the right frequency of interaction. Getting the cadence right requires upfront planning, preparation and executional discipline in order to ensure that the momentum is sustained and the interaction does not prematurely dry out.
- Comfort (zone): In digital leadership, many things happen instantly, unplanned and outside the comfort zone. Therefore, excellence in digital leadership is determined by speed and authenticity, not sophistication. There is nothing worse than delivering a leadership message by reading a polished script in front of a camera. A few personal statements in the leader’s own words would have been much more effective. In that respect, candid communication in ways that “a red pen” would not always approve of can extend trust and credibility.
- Care: Finally, digital leadership is not about perfection but affection. Conveying empathy and appreciation can make a real difference as it is essential for staff morale and loyalty. Especially in remote settings, organisations may decide to make appreciation of people and care for their well-being the top leadership priority. However, it takes effort and extra energy to bring across emotion online. However, there are effective techniques, both verbal and non-verbal, that work also in virtual settings. All too often, people in VCs appear rather cold, glaring, staring or glazed-over as if in disbelief or doubt. While the stage for body language is limited in virtual settings, some very crucial aspects can be adhered, such as eye contact and an open, upright and dynamic body stance. Combined with hands-in-view posture and a pleasant smile, body language in digital environments can become a powerful asset instead of a potential liability.
In summary, engaging people in a digital environment requires leaders to think beyond digitalizing of their daily interaction. In order to operate in the new reality, leaders need to seamlessly connect through technology and conveying creative content at an optimum cadence. However, in order to win in the digital age, leaders need to step out of the comfort zone and enact a culture of care and appreciation. By doing so, digitalisation becomes the launch pad for an all new leadership agenda.
Ulf Bosch - Professor of Practice, Queen’s Management School
As a Professor of Practice in Management and Leadership at Queen's Management School, Ulf’s research explores two major strands within the field of strategic management:
- International business (IB) strategy focusing on the multinational corporation (MNC) in emerging markets; and
- Digital business transformation with an emphasis on organisational change, resilience and leadership
Ulf has considerable experience in the field of strategic management working as a senior strategic adviser, academician, digital transformation expert and book author working in management consulting since 1998.