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How to Be a Good Leader in the Digital Age

How to Be a Good Leader in the Digital Age

Leadership, like everything else in the modern age, just ain’t what it used to be. Everything is “digital” nowadays, but what that means goes beyond the singular devices and processes that we refer to as “digital.” Sure, apps, the cloud, 3D printers, smart TVs — these things are all digital innovations. However, as Wharton University’s Liri Andersson and Ludo Van der Heyden argue, we should perhaps pay more attention to the sum of the parts when we define what “digital” means in the business world.

“More important than the specific innovations introduced by the digital revolution is their earth-shaking cumulative impact on business and on organizations,” they write. “There is no border anymore between the pre- and post-digital worlds. Digital is business and business is digital.”

What Andersson and Van der Heyden are talking about, essentially, is disruption in the modern age. Inability to adapt to disruption is the same killer that drove Blockbuster out of business where Netflix would succeed. While disruption is natural, perhaps even the same driving force that drove the Industrial Revolution, change without preparation can be painful — even devastating. Unfortunately, Andersson and Van der Heyden, citing a survey of 1,160 managers, executives, and board directors that the pair conducted in 2016, don’t believe that enough leaders are taking charge of digitalizing their organization.

“We discovered that most board members lack the knowledge and awareness necessary to lead a digital transformation,” they write.

Andersson and Van der Heyden aren’t saying that current leadership doesn’t want to steer their ships through digital seas, but rather that they’re unsure of how to navigate them. Let’s get to the bottom of better leadership in this new, digital age.

Explore Leaderships Styles

If the digital age is marked by never-ending change and responsive adaptation that comes with it, leadership is not exempt from these standards. Organizations that are open and agile are able to respond in the most effective manner to disruptive development, meaning that successful leaders also must adopt open, agile, and adaptable methods from a broad range of styles.

Barry Libert, Jerry Wind, and Megan Beck Fenley, writing for Wharton University of Pennsylvania’s online blog, posit that because most companies are the sum of multiple classes and business types, most leaders rely on one or more of the four leadership styles:

  • The Commander: This style is for those who prefer a straightforward method of setting the goals and telling others how to accomplish them. This is an effective method in automation-heavy industries, as well as with direct subordinates who prefer no-frills execution.
  • The Communicator: “Communicators” also set a vision and a plan, but these leaders communicate it in order to stoke the fires of inspiration and participation. This style works well in organizations where each individual employee must work in conjunction with one another and leadership as a conscious part of the “whole.”
  • The Collaborator: Champions of this style work hand-in-hand with customers and employees to empower, enable, achieve the organization’s goals. This method promotes innovation and creativity in the company’s intellectual endeavors
  • The Co-Creator: This leadership style allows other stakeholders to pursue individual goals in conjunction with organization goals. As a result, co-creators garner both rapid scaling (due to the high level of participation) and innovation.


Respect, Collaboration, and Communication

Successful leaders are not only going to have to reimagine how they handle the organization as a whole, but will also need to take care that their individual relationships with employees and customers don’t suffer due to digital disruption. An intergenerational workplace means that the digital literacy divide between employees might be vast, and while younger employees who grew up digital natives might adapt well to remote work, unified communications platforms, and learning new apps every quarter, Baby Boomers and even Gen X’ers may not. Conversely, younger generations, while savvy to technology, still need gain the experience and expertise in the working world that older generations have. Within these intergenerational workforces where varying degrees of digital literacy are displayed, it’s your job as a leader to practice and cultivate two specific ideas: respect and collaboration.

“Across all three generations, one of the biggest common factors is the need for respect,” writes Charles Costa with Intuit’s Firm of the Future. “It’s a two-way street where mature professionals want acknowledgement from younger workers, while young professionals feel they deserve recognition regardless of their age.

“Aside from respect, collaboration is another major area to consider when managing employees of different generations,” he continues. “Since younger employees are newer to the workforce, they’re going to require some degree of direction and supervision. On the other hand, younger professionals can help older professionals leverage technology in the workplace, and even help them learn how to achieve a better work-life balance.”

Communication breakdowns between team members often happen when respect and collaborative attitudes go out the window. Whether that communication is digital or face to face, it doesn’t matter. That’s something that also needs to be taken into account: just because your style of communication changes doesn’t mean that the basic tenets of communication have changed. Of course, despite more digital communication, you need to make sure to that you don’t lose the human element in your workplace. You can find a couple of tips for keeping employees, happy and engaged here.

Know Your Threats

Even though change is a constant, it’s necessary to always have a solid understanding of everything that can go wrong with digitization. Stephen Robert Morse, writing for The Hartford’s Smallbiz Ahead, lists “evaluating potential threats” as one of the primary ways of protecting business income — and he’s right.

“The first step… is to consider where potential threats may arise,” he writes. “Natural disasters, power failures, theft and vandalism are possibilities. Lawsuits and data breaches also pose a significant threat to businesses today.”

In reference to cyber attacks and data breaches, posing a “significant threat” may be putting it lightly. The Equifax hack of 2017 proved that business and employee data protection isn’t always even in your hands, and the WannaCry virus that hit internationally in the same year should have been a wakeup call for small and large businesses alike. Unfortunately, recent surveys have shown that businesses of all sizes are actually overconfident about cybersecurity.

Nevertheless, while hacking and malware attacks are a major problem and the leading causes of data breaches (32 percent), according to figures presented by Beazley Breach Insights, a more sinister cause lurks within every organization.

“…accidental breaches caused by employee error or data breached while controlled by third party suppliers continue to be a major problem, accounting for 30 percent of breaches overall, only slightly behind the level of hacking and malware attacks,” they report. “In the healthcare sector these accidental breaches represent, by a significant margin, the most common cause of loss at 42 percent of incidents.”

Organizational leaders should prepare against outside attacks with proper measures, but need to be wary of the dangers presented by internal digital ignorance or error. Cybersecurity education is a must, and may have even curbed the Equifax, which was caused by a lone employee’s error, according to the former CEO.

Up Your Knowledge, Continue Learning, and Stay Adaptive

While all of the above will help a leader adapt to change, there’s no magic bullet that you can shoot and walk away from. Good leaders in the digital age need to commit to a philosophy of continued learning and adaptability, which will not only allow them to handle current change, but also predict change to come. Artificial Intelligence (AI), for example, was once considered science fiction — but Ohio University lists “management” as one of seven industries that will be affected most by this new technology.

To begin shoring up your knowledge on business tactics in the digital age, modern schools and online universities are now teaching how to do business in a tech-driven world via graduate offerings. The MBA is the most popular degree in the country, accounting for more than 25 percent of all graduate degrees awarded in the US, according to learning company Context. Leaders who are already busy with work in their field might find the executive MBA (EMBA) program a little more appealing than the standard MBA.

“[It’s] designed for business professionals who are already mid-career and can be earned while working full-time,” they write. “This type of program is ideal for students with significant experience who want to refresh their knowledge and pursue a boost in their careers.”

Retaining this knowledge and using it adaptively as situations call for it are hallmarks of effective digital leaders. The world will continue to move forward and grow more complex, and the minute you stop is the minute it passes you by. Stay hungry for knowledge, and always be ready to do something new.

It’s not easy to commit to change, let alone execute it — but change is the new “norm.” Business leaders who accept that now stand a chance at success in this new frontier. Those who do not will be fighting an upstream battle, against popular consensus as well as the course of history itself. Good leaders don’t always take the easiest route, but they take the one that makes most logical sense. Adapt, overcome disruption, and become the leader that is needed of you in this new digital age.

Published: January 23, 2018

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Andrew Heikkila

Andy Heikkila is a business owner, writer, and musician hailing from the lush Pacific NW. He enjoys running, drinking, and hanging out with his friends when he’s not working. Feel free to drop him a message on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.

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