· Features

The five attributes of digital leadership

Your organisation has digital leaders, but they're not always in obvious places

Too many confuse digital leadership with technical experience. This creates well-intentioned but insufficient action. Reverse mentorship programmes may increase executives' comfort with social communications but they do not foster new forms of leadership across all organisational levels. Chief digital officers seldom have the remit to reboot leadership beyond the corporate incubator.

Look deeper within your organisations and the picture changes. Across your company you have emerging leaders shaped by digital and social technologies. They navigate the communities, small teams, and external ecosystems that are the organisation's vital fabric, not just its shadow structures. Their experience fosters values and behaviours – an entire digital mindset – that distinguish them from incumbent leaders.

Cultivating digital leaders is important if you want to create a culture of action and ownership. So we explore five leadership superpowers for the digital age:

  1. Connected. We live in a world of thick connection; to lead is to master the network. Network-centric leaders use digital tools differently – listening rather than broadcasting. Jos de Blok, CEO of Dutch homecare provider Buurtzorg, uses his company's social network to test his ideas with community nurses. In new 'team-of-teams' models leaders create shared awareness by encouraging information flows and emotional connections between teams. Digital workplace technologies are force multipliers of connected leadership. Every leader must be facile with these tools.
  2. Situational. Situational leadership is an established model that can fall down in practice. It is hard to find individuals who are decisive, efficient line managers, and able to intuit teams' needs in new situations. But what if we applied it differently? Instead of a leader who picks the right approach to best support the team, what if the team picks the right leader to support the best approach? Spotify employs this rotational leadership on squads organised by a common mission rather than function or product.
  3. Inclusive. Diversity means less group-think and more customer empathy. To be inclusive organisations must make space for more people to lead. For most this means giving time back to middle managers who spend their days acting as water carriers of corporate information. Tasks such as reporting and even elements of performance management, are ripe for automation. This frees leaders to focus on 'high touch' activities like coaching and mediating trust.
  4. Curious. Gut instinct has long been a senior leadership skill. But in fast-moving organisations gut instinct is not enough. Curious leaders ask questions of data and incorporate the perspectives of frontline employees who pick up on early warning signals. A curious, data-driven approach has other benefits, including increased transparency and bringing customer voices to the organisation's centre.
  5. Serving. First named in 1970, servant leadership plays well with today's employee engagement efforts. This model takes on new dimensions as AI becomes part of daily work. AI is unusable if it isn't trusted by humans. Leaders will engender trust in hybrid teams by serving people – addressing their practical questions, as well as resistance and fears, as employees learn to work alongside algorithms and robots.

How to find and nurture digital leaders

Today's leadership development programmes will struggle to do this. They assume a few at the top make decisions that drive innovation and customer satisfaction.

We need new approaches to develop leaders who thrive in adaptive, lateral organisations. Companies like Bosch and Daimler use networks of voluntary change agents, or 'digital guides,' to involve the entire firm in transformation. These efforts connect people with social technologies, empowering them to practise new ways of working. Digital guides not only enable a more participatory process when compared with classic change management, but also learn how to exercise leadership in connected companies.

Are we going to create adaptive, digital-first organisations by lavishing leadership offsites and 1:1 coaching on a small group of successors? Or do we get better returns – both business and societal – by redistributing our programme budgets across a broader number of employees who go on to enact change in their parts of the organisation and blossom as leaders in the process?

My bet is on the latter.

Christine Overby is a principal at Post*Shift