Leadership, disrupted – leading in the digital age

Leadership, disrupted – leading in the digital age


“Digital business doesn’t just disrupt markets; it disrupts tried and true management behaviours as well.”[1]

As the world we live and work in becomes increasingly digital, business leaders are challenged to provide a new kind of leadership – leadership that taps into potential, to meet the challenges of an emergent, uncertain future. Yet when it comes to digital leadership, the facts tell a story of strong demand and constrained supply. While the majority of organisations agree that digital leadership is important, 65% have no significant program in place to drive digital leadership skills[2].

Digital leadership is distinctive

Nous defines digital leadership as the ability to engage people to achieve digital business success by creating the conditions that maximise purposeful innovation with pace and discipline. To meet this challenge, digital leaders:

  • Seek out and entertain possibilities, creating ways for good ideas within the business to get air time
  • Look outwards across networks and adjacent businesses, as well as major technology trends, to scan for opportunities and possible threats.

Seizing the opportunities of the digital age and avoiding the extinction that comes with standing still demands a new type of leadership. This digital leadership challenges many traditional expressions of leadership, such as:

  • Command and control leadership – that can separate decisions from their context and impact
  • Layers of hierarchy – that slow decisions and blur roles
  • ‘Gatekeepers’ to leadership – that can keep out new ideas and challenge diverse thinking
  • Extensive reporting – that consumes effort, reduces speed and filters out ideas and information.

Meeting the digital leadership challenge

Nous recently collaborated with a selection of digital leaders – CEOs, CIOs and Digital Executives – from some of Australia’s leading businesses to build a framework to help define the leadership that is needed in the digital age and how it can be cultivated:

Meeting the digital leadership challenge

Bring the mindset

How we think about things guides what we do and how we behave. It is important for digital leaders to think about their leadership in ways that produce the right behaviours and drive results. Some habits of mind that Nous has identified in effective digital leaders are:

Impact beats power – Digital leaders are often motivated by meaning and impact rather than traditional power and authority. They will ask themselves, what growth and success have we delivered? What have we built that was not there earlier? What impact have we achieved that we could not have imagined before?

Create transparency – Sharing information broadly enables faster decision-making at scale and better performance. Digital leaders believe in the transparency of business information, and of their own leadership. They are open about their personal limitations and encourage others to be self-aware, and use this understanding to improve performance.

Foster resilience – This is particularly important for digital leaders, because in digital businesses pivots or failures often signal the end of someone’s passion project. Digital leaders must model discipline and encourage others to hold ideas loosely, respect the evidence, manage negative emotions, and find the energy and enthusiasm to move on.

Do the work

Digital leaders do not watch from the sidelines. They are purposeful in modelling themselves and seeking in others certain key characteristics of digital business success. They demonstrate this through the things they do themselves each day – the things they talk about, spend time on and reward in others:

Connect with purpose and customer – Great digital leaders are committed to understanding and communicating ‘why’ work is important and how it delivers on broader purpose. They put customers, their experience, and their current and emerging needs at the centre of their focus and foster the same commitment in others.

Empower the team – Digital businesses have an accent on speed, so digital leaders create a culture where everyone is encouraged to sense and exploit opportunities, to constantly find new ways to deliver better customer experiences. Ideas are not held back by burdensome layers of oversight, bureaucracy and control mechanisms.

Cultivate discipline – Effective digital leaders understand that discipline is as important as creativity in making innovation work. They know how to focus their attention and balance business improvement with growth and innovation. They only pursue ideas that have tested positively and ensure the business learns from every experiment before moving on.

Cultivating digital leadership

Organisations must consider how to cultivate digital leadership at scale. Growing and learning fast demands great leadership across more levels. This is because distributed leadership engages people and motivates them to do their best work. It creates an environment where answers can be found by many rather than told by a few, and it fosters daily experimentation and innovation closer to customers.

But this positive effect also exacerbates the challenge, because it means digital leadership must be fostered across a broader and often large segment of the workforce, beyond the executive level that is the go-to layer for investment in development.

At the same time, we are operating in a world where traditional training is time consuming, costly and less helpful to modern learners, who are self-directed, digitally savvy and easily distracted.

The ability to grow digital leadership at all levels and at scale can be a differentiator and an accelerator for businesses. Like the world of digital business, the path to great digital leadership is not a question of “best practice”, but requires fresh thinking, experimentation, and adaptation.

This article originally appeared in HRD Magazine, June 2017. View online.

[1] Graham P. Waller, Gartner Global Human Capital Trends 2017.

[2] Global Human Capital Trends 2017.