Great Leadership in The Digital Age

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Prof. Lere Baale

The objective of this series is to guide the ordinary leader to do extra little things that will help move them up into extraordinary leadership level.

According to World Economic Forum, in the digital era, we are bombarded with constantly evolving technologies, such as artificial intelligence, big data and cryptocurrencies. As a result, organisations have adapted to these rapid changes with a shift from traditional forms of leadership to redefining what leadership means today.

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

But why is digital leadership important? Today, leaders need to deal with unprecedented changes and an unpredictable and challenging future, due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This revolution is driven by the advent of new technologies. In such a world, leadership will play a bigger role than ever. Leaders will have to create and show the way forward amid transitions, disruptions, chaos and ambiguity.

In this chaotic world, strong leadership is more important than ever. Good leaders will need to steer their teams forward and navigate the tides in the face of these chaotic transitions.

The role of digital leaders will be prominent as they will need to steer, design and build systems that create an inclusive future for everyone. Here, we look at strategies to create leadership at all levels.

Building participation and accountability

The digital economy is driven by rapid ongoing developments. Leaders cannot take ownership of everything. A leader cannot know it all, and the top-down approach is no longer sustainable.

Leaders need to empower their teams to work with autonomy and freedom, and to take decisions. Organisations need to create leaders at all levels by building participation and accountability. They need to learn from people working on the ground, take inputs and trust them. Every member of the team should be encouraged to contribute ideas, insights and knowledge for achieving shared goals.

Leaders need to build an environment where people take ownership of things and are accountable. When people care about the tasks they are performing, and work with their heart and soul, great things are possible.

Providing visionary direction, clarity and purpose

The digital world is not about technology, but people. As our day-to-day lives are increasingly immersed in technology, it is easy to lose perspective on things that matter. Leadership needs to communicate with purpose and provide direction. Leaders need to create a compelling vision, and communicate with clarity so that everyone understands what the team is trying to achieve and why.

Great leaders have the ability to decipher complexity and present simple steps towards achieving a task. Leadership also needs to be vigilant, and to create a long-term sustainable value proposition for all stakeholders.

In this digital age it’s easy to get lost in the technological aspects of daily life. However, there is a growing need for leaders to create a compelling vision, which provides others with a perspective on things that matter. Leaders need to show their teams the goals that they are trying to achieve, and why. One characteristic of a great leader is having the skill to break down seemingly impossible, complex tasks into simple, workable steps that work towards achieving the tasks. They also need to keep a watchful eye over the progress of these steps, while delegating tasks best suited to their team members’ skills.

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Furthermore, leaders need to possess a positive energy that is contagious, and inspires others to be a part of their vision – as a wise person once said, “People achieve great things when they are driven by a strong purpose, and find work meaningful. When people know the why, they figure out the how.”

Leaders need to energise everyone and inspire them with an inclusive vision. People achieve great things when they are driven by a strong purpose and find work meaningful. When people know the why, they figure out the how.

Being a good communicator and nurturing others

According to the Forbes Report, which examined the data behind leadership, there are several core traits that define an effective modern leader. One of these is providing others with encouragement and praise, which the report defines as “the most important factor in coaching – more so than technical or strategic expertise.”

The report also emphasises the crucial importance of two-way listening and communication between members, which makes everyone feel valued and a part of the team. Communication enables leaders to gain insights into how others feel. Understanding the emotions of others, including what stresses them or makes them happy, enables leaders to identify where tensions lie and how to solve them; in the long run, this promotes an increase in productivity and wellbeing amongst team members.

Empowering people to experiment, innovate and execute

The average age of an S&P company was 33 years in 1964. This was reduced to 24 years by 2016, and is expected to shrink to 12 years by 2027. There are forces of creative destruction at play, and leaders need to be on top of their game to survive and thrive.

The paradox of leadership lies in staying focused on the present, while also visualising the future and creating a roadmap to reach it. Innovation is the way to remain immune to creative destruction and disruptions. Leaders need to drive innovation and experimentation, and to continuously evolve to meet dynamic needs.

When organisations create a culture of learning, failures and experiments lead to inventions and innovations. Creating leadership at all levels provides the support required for teams to iterate their way to success.

Building employee participation on all levels

As already noted, leadership in this age is no longer hierarchical – rather, it emphasises employee empowerment and building independent teams. In the past, leaders overstretched themselves, trying to get everything done. To avoid such a scenario now, leaders need to invest time, energy and human resource which allow us to see the impact of our leadership. There is a growing importance of hiring specialists and strategists who can help you focus your resources on the proper channels, saving you both time and money.

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A top-down approach is no longer effective because it makes others feel insignificant and undervalued. In contrast, leaders should empower their teams to work with as much autonomy and freedom as possible to make independent decisions within their teams. No matter how junior, every member of the team should be encouraged to contribute their unique ideas, and individual knowledge, to achieve shared goals.

Building bridges and finding solutions

Technology has shattered the barriers and reduced the distances between industries, societies and places. The world is more interconnected than ever. Leaders who understand the value of diversity, inclusion and open-mindedness can navigate the challenges of technological disruptions.

The way that traditional industries operate is undergoing rapid transformation. The rise of the sharing economy, online marketplaces and digital platforms for ride-sharing, hotel booking and peer-to-peer lending means that teams need to remain open to new opportunities on the horizon.

Leaders need understanding of various business functions, industries and technologies to conceptualise the right solutions for new situations. New industries will emerge from innovations and technological developments. It will be important for teams to be open-minded and tap into new avenues for growth outside their comfort zones.

Agile teams and quick decision-making

The speed at which you do things can be the difference between success and failure in the digital economy. Leaders need a mechanism to make their teams more agile, to deal with sudden changes and challenge the status quo.

Digital leadership requires adaptability to handle pressure and constant changes, and to take decisions with agility. The projects you’re working on can lose significance very quickly through no fault of your own. In these moments of uncertainty, experts should be trusted to resurrect things, pivot the organisation and show the way forward.

Constant evolution and reskilling

The inertia of past success can be crippling for the future. Leaders need nimbleness to adapt and equip their teams with skills for the future. Innovations and disruptive technology will have a significant bearing on workforces, processes, companies and industries.

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report suggests that, by 2025, no less than 65 per cent of all employees will require significant re-and upskilling. Of these, about 40 per cent are expected to require additional training of up to six months, while 15 per cent will require reskilling lasting 6-12 months and 10 per cent will require additional skills training of more than a year.

Digital leaders will need to address the skill gaps, prepare themselves and their teams to face the future by creating an environment of lifelong learning. With the adoption of new technology and solutions, new professions, skills and industries will emerge.

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The challenges ahead

The Worlds Bank’s 2019 report, The Changing Nature of Work, contains an interesting observation: IKEA, the Swedish furniture retail giant, took 30 years after its founding in 1943 before it started expanding in Europe. It reported revenue of $42 billion after seven decades. However, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba reached one million users in just two years. It accumulated more than 9 million online merchants and annual sales of $700 billion in 15 years, using digital technologies.

Disruptions in the digital world occur at a phenomenal rate. They have the power to impact the way entire industries operate. All actors, from regulators to policy-makers, governments and digital leaders, need to proactively analyse the risks involved and come up with solutions for mitigating them.

Last year, there were stories about Facebook’s security breaches, privacy policies and data sharing. Millions of users were exposed and serious concerns were raised about the soft underbelly of the digital economy. This is just the sort of issue that digital leadership needs to tackle head-on.

Leaders need to create systems that ensure transparency, a thorough audit of processes and the highest ethical standards. Dealing with personal data, privacy of individuals and corporate information requires enforcement of stringent compliance and transparency.

In a world driven by devices and technology, how you lead people will make the critical difference. Leaders in this new age need to inspire, engage and lead with optimism. Technology can play a role in reducing racial, gender and economic inequalities for vast numbers of people. By empowering others to pinpoint and solve critical problems, digital leaders will have the power to shape the future of our world.

In summary, leaders in the digital age need to address the following important issues:

* Building participation and accountability

* Providing visionary direction and clear purpose

*   Being a good communicator and nurturing others

* Empowering people to experiment, innovate and execute

*     Building employee participation on all levels

* Building bridges and finding solutions

* Building agile teams and making quick decisions

Constant evolution and reskilling

Adjustment into digital challenges ahead

The great leadership in the digital age will need to empower their teams to work with autonomy and freedom. And to take decisions, they need the power to inspire, engage and lead others with clarity and optimism; they need to focus on building their communication skills, encouraging autonomy among team members; and they need to clearly identifying their goals.

Leaders in this digital age will need to address disruption in the ecosystem with direction, volatility with vision, uncertainty with understanding, chaos with clarity, ambiguity with agility, risks with resilience, and embrace divergence instead of fighting it.

Through their ability to empower others to identify and overcome key obstacles, digital leaders can successfully alter the direction of the future of their organisations.

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