How to be a leader in the digital age

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How can leaders benefit from digital disruption and breakthrough technologies? Image: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Artur Kluz
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The coming years will be a time of “Digital Leaders”. Around the world, leaders in different fields have already started to embrace the digital revolution and recognize the power of game-changing technology. “Every country needs a Minister of the Future,” said Saleforce’s founder and CEO Marc Benioff, at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year. And he was right.

1. But what does leadership actually mean?

There is a plethora of literature on leadership, but only some of it addresses an issue of how disruptive technologies can define the new wave of leaders in today’s world. Before we move on to digital leadership, we should take a step back and look at what leadership means in general and whether universal characteristics of leadership apply to the fast-changing world of disruptive technologies.

Different ages require different kinds of leadership, but many leading theorists claim that there are certain universal characteristics that are timeless.

First, personal charisma. A charismatic person possesses a rare gift that allows them to influence followers while inspiring loyalty and obedience.

However, Max Weber predicted a decline in charismatic leadership in what he described as “routinization” Arguably he was right, especially in the Western World where charismatic leadership over the years has been, to some extent, “succeeded by a bureaucracy controlled by a rationally established authority or by a combination of traditional and bureaucratic authority”. This process is evident in the European Union’s bureaucratic system, where politicians are often accused of being unable to take brave and visionary decisions. A huge system of checks and balances and the competing national interests of 28 member states makes it harder for high-ranked officials to act decisively.

Even those who possess natural charisma are not able to pursue their right course of action because they are forced to balance various interests, maintain order and seek consensus. Margaret Thatcher once described European leaders as being “weak” and “feeble”; the same, unfortunately, could be said about a number of leaders in Europe today. It is because their personal charisma, if they ever had it, has been silenced by bureaucracy.

Second, aside from ‘inner’ or personal levels of leadership, there is also an ‘outer’ or behavioral level which relates to how leaders deliver results, according to more integrated psychological theory. There are several universal skills that are worth mentioning, such as: (1) motivational skills; (2) team building; (3) emotional intelligence.

Obviously, this list of skills is not exhausted but indicates the core abilities required to deliver successful results. And although these ‘outer’ characteristics have largely remained the same, there are also a few which have changed substantially due to the unprecedented impact of technology.

The human impact of technology

We live in a world of rapidly advancing technology which is influencing lives like never before. Digital technology is transforming politics, businesses, economies and society, as well as our day-to-day lives.

Digital technology has not only broken down the old, familiar models of organizations, but has also created a broad set of new challenges.

The best example of transformative change is probably within the space industry. In 2015, we could observe how SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket landed safely at Cape Canaveral, which was hailed almost immediately as another giant leap for mankind. Reusable rockets are a fantastic business opportunity, a source of entertainment and, more importantly, another step forward in the commercialization of space travel and ultimately toward a possible colonization of other planets.

Back here on earth, we can’t deny that our world is changing as never before. Technological revolution is evident and examples of our new reality abound. The most popular social media creates no content (Facebook), the fastest growing banks have no actual money (SocietyOne), the world’s largest taxi company owns no taxis (Uber), and the largest accommodation provider owns no real estate (Airbnb). Today’s game changers drive with completely different fuel and sometimes – as the above examples clearly indicate – they revolutionize even the most basic characteristics of particular industries.

On a conceptual level, the Digital Age - called sometimes the knowledge society or networked society - is marked by several key structural changes that are reshaping leadership: (1) rapid and far-reaching technological changes, (2) globalization leading to the dynamic spread of information; (3) a shift from physical attributes toward knowledge and (4) more dispersed, less hierarchical organizational forms of organization.

The impact of the Digital Age on leadership

Traditional skills have not been supplanted but they now co-exist with a mix of new factors.

First of all, digital leadership can be defined by a leader’s contribution to the transition toward a knowledge society and their knowledge of technology. Digital leaders have an obligation to keep up with the ongoing global revolution. They must understand technology, not merely as an enabler but also for its revolutionary force.

Leadership must be driven by an attitude of openness and a genuine hunger for knowledge. Of course, no rule dictates that leaders must be literate in coding or that they graduated from machine-learning but yes, there is an imperative to understand the impact of breakthrough technologies.

Today’s leaders must have the ability to identify technological trends across different sectors, such as big data, cloud computing, automation, and robotics. However, first and foremost they must possess sufficient knowledge and the vision to use these resources most effectively.

Secondly, in a knowledge society, what we do not know is as important as what we do know. Leaders should know their limits and know how to acquire missing knowledge. A leader of the future is more like a community manager rather than an authoritarian.

These days, we are observing the decline of traditional hierarchical models of organization. Take a look at how the organization of governments has changed across Western societies in recent years. A number of governments have introduced or reinforced public consultation processes as well as opened up public data for the benefit of their citizens.

These processes, by and large, will continue to grow. As a result, the hierarchical model tends to be suppressed and replaced by horizontal structures among executives, leaders from different sectors, researchers and representatives from civic society. Hierarchy fails in the digital age because it’s slow and bureaucratic, whereas the new world is constantly changing and requires immediate responses.

Information is key. In today’s world, power is not gained by expanding new territories or areas of influence but by deepening and widening networks and connections. But what is the role of the individual or leader, or of qualities that distinguish one grain of sand from another?

Why leaders should turn their attention to tech for good

We have to shift our focus from the threat of new technologies to the opportunities they bring.

Of course, we cannot ignore the threat of new technologies. In India, for example, around 850 government websites have been hacked since 2012. Meanwhile, hackers recently breached US Government networks and stole more than 5.6 million fingerprint records from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). And the government is not always a victim, they can also be the predator. Not long ago, Twitter warned a number of users that they may have been the target of a state-sponsored attack.

The debate concerning the threat of technologies, especially the internet, will never end. Policymakers have proposed different ways of regulating the web, but they always are one or two steps behind. This is because law and regulations are stable and designed to be long-lasting, whereas the digital environment is changing rapidly. As Hugh Fiennes, CEO of Electric Imp, puts it: "The reality seems to be that when it comes to the internet-connected device there is no such thing as absolute security. Your device can start by being secure today and then not be secure tomorrow."

We do not claim that regulation is purely ineffective, and thus we should abandon any legal solutions for creating a more secure environment. But we do suggest that we look at technologies through different lenses. We can transform the one thing that is good and bad in breakthrough technologies - the human factor.

Having acknowledged that digital technology will play a decisive role our future, leaders cannot afford to show fear or reluctance in implementing it. Instead, they must embrace technology with a clear view of its potential. We must set sail for new, ambitious lands. We choose to go to Mars because our technology enables us to at least attempt the exploration on other planets by the 2030s. And we choose to develop other fantastic things every day – self-driving cars, more powerful batteries, the Apple Watch, drones – to name only just a few.

A balanced mix of universal characteristics and digital leadership traits has the potential to guide us through years of transformation with optimism and idealism. Technology continues to prove that it can be used for the benefit of mankind, but only if we set sail on the right course and with the right companions.

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