Leadership In The Digital Age

Leadership is essential during times of change. A true leader is someone who can successfully guide an organisation, group or team through that change. They do it by providing an inspiring vision of where they are collectively heading, with an objective and a path to achieving it. They do it by being open, sharing and establishing trust.

There is nothing new in that, of course. What is new is that in the digital world change is permanent and continuous. Leadership becomes even more important when the vision must change, objectives move, and the path diverges. Leadership in the digital world is about having the agility to embrace all that change and making it more approachable, safer.

Before addressing how this can be achieved, it is worth noting that many managers, especially in large organisations, now like to style themselves as leaders. They probably read about it in a management book, but management is not leadership, and confusing the two is dangerous. A manager may be a leader, and a leader may be a manager, but the skills and qualities are not the same. Recognising this is important as all too often a manager’s role is to ensure compliance with established practices, and in a digital world those practices are likely to be obsolete.

Established practices, best practices, and most business processes have been defined in response to how something was once done. By definition a best practice is a response to how things used to be. We worked out how to do something really, really well. So well, in fact, that it became a rule to follow absolutely. Classic managers love this, they love the regularity, predictability and above all, the illusion of control. Unfortunately all of these aspects are antithetical to the world of change and digital experience. In many industries, doing what we used to do is almost certainly the wrong thing.

Leaders do not care about control. They don’t need it as they inspire their team or company to do the right thing, and beyond that, decide what that right thing is without being told. Leaders trust their people to follow the vision, but for many people this is quite a terrifying prospect, and is one of the most important aspects of adopting leadership in the digital world.

The other critical leadership ability is to define and communicate the vision that keeps the team on track. A vision needs to be compelling, not complex or even complete. Very few people are lucky enough to suddenly have an earth-shattering business idea, so forget about killer apps and becoming “Airbnb for Garden Sheds.” Mostly a vision will be triggered by the mental equivalent of stubbing a metaphorical toe on something in your business, infrastructure or daily life. Often it might be a customer, team member or business partner who finds it, but it is the leader that defines it and owns it. The leader recognises the opportunity that is the difficulty the other person experiences. This is an area where an experienced facilitator can really help, you can see how we did this with Peace One Day.

While the vision may encompass a digital strategy for a multinational company, a vision may be as simple as we need to expose a set of APIs to our business partners so they can work better together, or we need a next generation mobile app that lets our customers manage their own accounts as our current one doesn’t really do anything. The scope of a vision can range from small or global, but the concept is invariably simple, and simplicity is not an easy thing to achieve. Often powerful concepts are swamped by unwarranted complexity, rendering them unachievable. Clearly any vision must be backed up by some degree of detail, but that is secondary to overall clarity.

Once again, none of this is new, but the current digital age puts the necessity for leadership, trust and vision into sharp relief. It is simultaneously easier and more difficult to deliver new services than ever before. New competitors pop up without warning. Bad news travels round the world instantly, switching loyalties at a single tweet.

Reinventing yourself and your organisation is infinitely preferable to having it reinvented for you, or worse destroyed. Over the next few weeks I will cover the practical aspects of how to find, refine and nurture a simple, clear vision and how to establish the trust required to deliver it. Alternatively, come in and we can discuss your strategy over a cup of tea.