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Leading in the Digital Age and Beyond

Updated: May 17, 2023

Executive Summary

Digital Age Leadership is less about deep technical know-how and more about the leadership qualities, strategies and behaviours that predict success in the new context that digital technology has brought us. Trends include:

  • Increasing pace of change and disruption

  • Great expectations and ‘more with less’

  • Artificial Intelligence and automation

It helps for leaders to have a degree of digital savvy, however a good leader can leverage the expertise of their team and partners. In this way, in the Digital Age, everyone is a leader. Distributed leadership also means delegated decision making, hence we can move faster and more efficiently.

Everyone needs to step forward and offer their expertise and vision for a better way, then step back again when others have the direction we need. So a good leader is also a good follower and collaborator.

The qualities, strategies and behaviours all fall out from 4 primary mindsets for Digital Age Leaders and teams: Growth mindset, Empowerment mindset, Sustainable success mindset, Leverage mindset

These mindsets align with and support the principles of modern ways of working, including Agile and DevOps. In order to achieve true adoption of these ways of working, we require leaders who truly embrace these mindsets and embody them as part of the default way that they lead (including under pressure).

“Digital leadership is about empowering others to lead and creating self-organized teams that optimise their day-to-day operations. Leadership is no longer hierarchical – it needs participation, involvement and contribution from everyone.” World Economic Forum

Welcome to the Digital Age

The Digital Age presents us with many new challenges and opportunities to take ourselves, our organisations and our society forwards as a whole.

There are a number of trends that have emerged in the Digital Age that create this. The three most significant of which are:

Increasing pace of change

It’s not just the volume of new ideas, products and technologies we see emerging, but the pace at which they are being adopted continues to increase at an exponential rate.

The globalisation of communication through the internet means that the territory underneath many industries can now shift overnight and leave some companies with completely outmoded business models, while others grow at incredible speed.

This level of disruption puts most large organisations at risk, the overheads of maintaining their existing operations leave them susceptible.

More with less

The public and stakeholders now have great expectations of what can be achieved through the use of modern technology. Customers expect great capability as well as excellent customer service and experience. And while new demands are placed on businesses and teams, additional resources are not scaled proportionately. Existing operational overheads must be maintained while additional features and requirements are met. Automation and Lean practises help to offset these demands, and yet it is difficult for companies to keep up.

Artificial Intelligence and Automation

AI (artificial intelligence) and automation are providing some respite to the increasing demands, but are also opening up whole new markets. They also threaten to change the landscape of work. When repetitive (low value) work can be automated, workers are expected to retool and reskill to perform new work. Ultimately the work that is left for humans to perform will be the work to validate and maintain the automated process, and to innovate and develop the next wave of automation. These innovative and collaborative skills are much more aligned with the role of leaders.

“The automation of work and the digital disruption of business models place a premium on leaders who can create a vision of change and frame it positively.” McKinsey Group

What is a leader?

A leader, well… leads.

Sounds simple. In order to lead, a leader must have a vision for the future that is beneficial for them, their stakeholders and organisation, and ideally society as a whole. This is a win-win-win solution.

In the modern world a leader must then be able to communicate their vision in a clear and compelling way, and effectively (and sometimes patiently) influence stakeholders and bring them on the journey. In this way, the leader attracts motivated followers who will contribute energy and effort (resources) into making this now shared vision become a reality.

This hasn’t always been true. For much of the 20th century, leaders were appointed and assigned resources to command. Good leaders were usually appointed for their outstanding understanding and experience of the domain in which they lead. They knew it all, and thus could make the best decisions on everyone’s behalf, which everyone else then followed without question.

What makes leading in the Digital Age different?

“Know[ing] stuff is important. What you do with what you know is more important. Knowing the why and how and when (the correct context) for what you do is the most important of all.” Dr Tim Patston, Alpha Geek Podcast Ep 37

In previous eras: knowledge = power. These days are now gone.

Due to the diversity, complexity and speed at which the Digital Age is producing new ideas and technologies, there is no one person who can be across it all. And while waiting for permission—waiting for context and decisions to be communicated up and down the chain—empires are won and lost, it’s too slow! This model of hierarchical leadership is no longer fast enough, or even feasible for a single leader to be well informed enough to make all the important decisions.

In the Digital Age, the complexity and volume of operations and change mean that clear cut dedicated resourcing is far less likely for any one initiative or vision. Leaders must now enlist support from staff, stakeholders and each other to contribute time, energy and effort towards a shared vision.

It is now less important to know every tool, skill or technology, and more important to be able to access, listen to and then enlist and motivate the right people at the right times to marshall the tools, skills and technology needed to bring your vision to life.

In the Digital Age and beyond: influence = power. And thus the ability for leaders to communicate, inspire, empower and motivate others is king.

Everyone is a leader

To thrive in the Digital Age, organisations must tap into the knowledge, experience and skills of everyone they can. Everyone in the organisation must feel trusted, confident and empowered to step up when they have a great idea and know the way and lead and influence those around them to get on board. In the Digital Age we need leaders at every level.

Not everyone has this innate confidence and capacities to influence. So a great leader will support and champion the voices of those around them who have something to offer but who aren’t confident in stepping up yet.

This also means a good leader is a good follower. Able to step back again and follow and support others in the what they contribute to the vision.

A good leader is also a good collaborator, who knows how to facilitate communication and innovation and even when to put their ego aside, sit back and participate in collaboration. Whatever is required to take the organisation forwards most efficiently and effectively towards those win-win-win outcomes.

“Digital leadership challenges many traditional expressions of leadership, such as: Command and control, layers of hierarchy, gatekeepers, and extensive reporting.” Nous Group

The mindsets of successful Digital Age leaders

In parallel to the rise of the Digital Age we have seen the rise of modern ways of working Lean, Agile and DevOps. By no coincidence these ways of working were inspired by the trends we see above and deliberately designed to maximise an organisation’s efficiency, flexibility and creativity to address the challenges of the Digital Age and take maximum advantage of the opportunities it presents.

These ways of working are by definition very flexible (agile), however the creators stress the importance of remembering the underpinning principles that should always be upheld.

Combined together there are over 30 principles in total, too many to faithfully remember and rattle off on demand. Luckily these principles all fall into one of 4 mindsets or ‘ways of being’.

This makes them easier to digest and remember, and form something of a roadmap for leaders who want to excel in the modern environment. The mindsets are: Growth, Empowerment, Sustainable Success and Leverage.

Growth mindset

This is the most well-known mindset. The opposite of ‘Fixed mindset’ where you may believe that you are unable to change, or learn or grow. That you’re stuck with the capabilities you currently have and it’s too hard to evolve.

The science of Neuroplasticity tells us that we are most certainly capable of learning, growing, changing, evolving and adapting. It’s never too late to learn something new and the best way to win is through relentless dedication to continuous improvement.

Growth can be a scary prospect at times, it requires we step outside our comfort zone. And that we have the humility and vulnerability to admit that we aren’t perfect yet, that there are things we don’t know, and we can learn from others. It requires that we face our fear of failure, and sometimes even a fear of success (what if I don’t like what I become?). Setting ourselves growth targets can also be overwhelming, and seem too hard.

We can allay these fears by remembering that as long as we are taking steps forwards, even baby steps, we will get there eventually. Persistence is key, even in the face of mistakes remember: There is no failure, we win or we learn!

In this way, Growth mindset can be summarised as:

A commitment to lifelong growth and continuous improvement. A deep knowing that I can learn anything I put my mind to, and if I keep taking one step at a time, I will. I believe others are capable of the same.

Empowerment mindset

Those who are disempowered can’t take action, make decisions, or capitalise on opportunities. This always comes back to fear. Fear of failure, embarrassment, rejection. Fear of being overruled or wasting their time or energy. Fear of being told they’ve overstepped their mandate.

As a result, the disempowered lean into blame and negativity to justify their lack of action, progress or success. In this way they make themselves a ‘victim’ or a ‘prosecutor’.

Empowerment mindset starts with self-empowerment. It encourages us to step into our power, own the problems we see around us and take action to address or influence them. When we are empowered we know we always have a choice, and in fact, the more choices we allow ourselves to see and consider viable, the more empowered we are.

Empowerment requires that we don’t beat ourselves up for our mistakes or failings, but rather use them as a point of learning and growth.

Empowerment mindset then helps us to always see the world as an opportunity to learn and grow, even during the toughest times. And because we are always looking, we are far more likely to see the opportunities and silver linings and therefore be able to capitalise on them.

We can then empower those around us, we don’t have to carry the weight alone. Empowered staff will commit discretionary effort and make the best decisions they can at the time. They are also then open to feedback and improvement when things go wrong, without taking it personally.

A deep knowing that I always have a choice and there is always a win-win outcome possible if I can forgive my mistakes and own the problem. In turn I empower others with choices, forgive their mistakes and expect them to own their part.

Sustainable Success mindset

Fear, control and incentives can be very effective motivators, however research shows they’re only a short-term solution, it’s not sustainable. This type of extrinsic motivation will also only encourage staff to do exactly what they’re told or take only the actions that are incentivised.

Sustainable Success comes from encouraging a pace and cadence that is more consistent, predictable and realistic. Allowing staff time to feel calm, enjoy their work, and have time for creativity, innovation, addressing technical debt and even the culture of the team.

To make space for this requires a very pragmatic approach to the prioritisation of work. There are always time, scope, resources and quality to play with, but as we are continually expected to do ‘more with less’, eventually something has to give.

It’s also important to focus on stakeholders’ intrinsic motivations. Aligning work where possible with what they are passionate about, and allowing for autonomy, mastery and purpose results in sustainable motivation. This motivation will also lead to the investment of discretionary effort, staff who go above and beyond to fill the gaps in between position descriptions and pick up balls others have dropped to ensure the vision is delivered.

A deep knowing that I contribute my best work over time when I’m happy, fulfilled and working at a sustainable pace. I value my wellbeing and encourage the same of others.

Leverage mindset

Leverage is about maximising the impact and value we can have from the least possible input and effort. In the Digital Age automation is an easy example of leverage. However this mindset should extend beyond just technical solutions.

Leverage mindset has us ask what’s our highest point of leverage? What are the tasks I do day to day that offer the most value to this organisation? And how can I shift other tasks to others who do this better than I, or for whom this is their current highest point of leverage?

Teams who have complimentary skillsets are a great example. There are benefits to cross-skilling team members in terms of business continuity. However allowing staff to specialise will result in efficiencies as they can each be contributing in ways that play to their strengths, passions and highest points of leverage.

Organisations who encourage this type of thinking will find their most repetitive work that is of low value for human minds will become streamlined, automated and/or outsourced leaving their staff to focus on higher value activities and innovation.

A deep knowing that I’ll be most passionate and impactful when I seek out work that’s intrinsically motivating to me and to contribute at my highest point of value as often as I can. I look to find ways to streamline or automate repetitive work. I encourage others to do the same.

Embodying the qualities of great leadership

Becoming the type of leader who can stay committed to their vision, even amongst challenging and chaotic contexts, and who can influence those around them and bring them on the journey is no easy feat.

It requires a broad range of communication skillsets including: Writing, speaking, presenting, pitching, sales, marketing, rapport and relationship building, negotiation, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and even managing and resolving conflict.

However, as important as these skills (i.e. what they do, and how they do it, their ‘ways of working’), it also requires that leaders show up as passionate, trustworthy and influential. This is less about their skills and what they say, and more about their unspoken thoughts, beliefs and intentions that are communicated subconsciously through how they show up, behave and their non-verbal communication (i.e. their ‘ways of being’).

This requires for great leaders to commit to a process of embodying these mindsets and leadership qualities as ‘ways of being’, and clear out any deeply held beliefs or habits that conflict with how they want to show up in the world.

How far along this journey each leader wants to travel is an individual choice. However the further one travels, the more confident, empowered and resourceful they feel, and the more powerful their influence and impact in the workplace and the world.

These Mindsets for Digital Age Leaders are made available for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license

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