Leadership in the Era of Digital Organizations

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Digital technologies are going to make enormous inroads into how the organization operates. But when it comes to digital leadership, the changes are more subtle.

Is digital leadership any different from what we could term ‘normal’ leadership? The quick answer is no. The longer answer is still no – it’s leadership as usual, but with a few specific additions. The fundamentals of good leadership practices are the same regardless of whether the interactions happen face-to-face, through a digital medium, or in an organization encased in the latest technologies. However, there are a few areas that digital technologies are adding to, or amplifying existing leadership dimensions.

What are some of the emerging (and perennial) leadership capabilities?

  • Agility & curiosity: at a time where the speed, willingness to make decisions, try new initiatives, fail fast, and learn constantly has become more important than ever before, the leaders who possess a willingness to experiment will have an advantage. Digital organizations need to move quickly on their feet to keep up with an insatiable marketplace.
  • Guiding: as transformations and shocks in the wider markets put huge pressures on leaders to deliver on change promises, it’s critical that leaders act as a trusted, empathetic guide to their employees. This goes beyond simply creating a healthy organizational culture; it requires the leader to demonstrate a willingness to suffer through challenges, whilst also explaining the rationales behind the transformation.
  • Business acumen: although this is no more or less important than it was before, leaders (and particularly in this context HR leaders) need to be consummate business professionals with a detailed knowledge of the organization, the industry, and the wider market. No less will suffice.
  • Entrepreneurial spirit: similar to the propensity for agility and curiosity, possessing an entrepreneurial mindset will give leaders the extra edge needed to take calculated risks and focus on the development of great products and services – the backbone of any great organization. This also includes horizon-scanning and abstract thinking.
  • Digital specific industry skills: while leaders must have a good knowledge of a range of new technologies (from AI to blockchain, and everything in between), it is imperative they understand and possess enough of the requisite skills to deal with the technological changes that will become standard to their industry. If you’re in manufacturing, it’s time to get acquainted with robotics. If you’re in customer service, chatbot knowledge is indispensable.
  • Leading blended organizations: with more and more advanced cognitive technologies available, soon many leaders will be faced with leading organizations where machines constitute part of the workforce. Philosophical questions aside, this means that leaders will have to acutely understand how to lead and motivate the human side of the business under these new conditions of work.
  • Authenticity: this is perhaps one of the most critical capabilities required for effective leadership. As Gerard Penning suggests: an authentic leader helps people to be more authentic in themselves, and therefore to gain confidence about their own abilities and place in the organization.
  • Storytelling & sense-making: it is apt to be concerned over the difficulties and complications that modern organizations face. However, leaders who can weave interesting stories, articulate clear answers, and make sense of all manner of data will be the effective communicators and tone-setters of the organization.
  • Empowering: with the need for psychological safety at work becoming more and more understood, leaders will need to empower their employees at work by providing an authentic, trustworthy, and stable voice. Leaders must also be cognizant about how important it is for them to recognize the skills that each individual possesses. If you recognize their skills, you’ll make people feel at home at work, and in turn, they’ll be empowered to create and perform in the best way they can.
  • Constant learning: It’s simply crucial that leaders themselves feel the need to constantly learn in this new digital world. As technologies move at stunning speeds, the need to learn and up skill is only going to keep increasing. However, it’s not just about new technologies. The willingness to learn from new experiences both great and small will be the hallmark of a successful leader and their organization. It will also form the backbone of an agile organization, open and ready for the oncoming disruptions in the market.

So what does all this mean for leaders in digital organizations, or those whose organizations are undergoing vast digital changes?

It means that the time-tested ‘rules’ of leadership still apply. But it also means that the right people and business strategies need to be in place as a pre-condition to ensure that digital disruptions don’t sink the organization. Without the right people, organizational culture, and mindsets – which invariably come from the top, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to make any effective changes. Therefore, in a digital organization a lot of the tough initial work will stem from how the leaders will work on their own skills and mindsets – setting positive examples in the process.

During tough times, leaders drive success through meaning-making practices that are ultimately, and fundamentally human. A leader who guides their team through these difficulties by making sense of the world will create unique bonds and a strong base for the organization to grow. So while technology will no doubt impact some of the every-day ways that leadership is expressed today, the fundamental human psychology of effective leadership remains the same as it has always been.

The 3rd Digital HR Innovation Summit in The Hague, April 27-28, will feature a selection of sessions that will explore the ongoing implications of digital technologies on HR and the business in general. Make sure you follow The HR Congress LinkedIn page to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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