What makes a (digital) leader?

Do you think digital leaders are different from other leaders? Is digital-ness a capability now required in any right-thinking leadership attribute list or statement? Is it possible to retro-fit existing established order 'analogue' leaders with the skills and attributes of new order 'digital' leaders? Answer each question in a tweet.

I'm wondering if the UK Government's Civil Service Group, part of the Cabinet Office, who are writing the first ever 'Leadership Statement' for all leaders in the civil service will make a play for digital in the statement which 'will set out what is expected of our leaders'. Maybe, it should as 'digital by default' is another by-line of the Government. But what would 'digital' look like in the context of a leadership statement? Is 'digital' a leadership quality or a set of tools that leaders deploy?

A book Writers on Leadership published in 2001 (before Twitter, etc) discusses more than 30 leadership 'gurus' under the theories of leadership they represented: behavioural theories, contingency theories, transformational theories, and the leader as strategic visionary. Their take is on the qualities, characteristics and attributes of leadership and the context in which they lead. The technology and tools of leadership are barely mentioned. Even Colin Powell, a former US military General in his Leadership Primer does not mention the tools of his trade, instead sticking to leadership qualities.

I'm not sure of the selection process for the thirty in that book but because it was written 'before digital' it can only have used 'analogue' selection methods. Oddly one of my favourite writers on leadership not mentioned in the book is Peter Drucker. He has timeless ideas on what makes a good leader. In an interview given towards the end of his life he mentioned aspects that he felt were key: knowing what needs to be done, being mission/purpose driven, setting the goals to achieving this and measuring against the goals, knowing when to stop doing things, having no more than two priorities and working on them, not trying to be what you're not, having the skills to reinvigorate people, being absolutely trustworthy. Again nothing on the tools used in deploying these attributes.

Contrast the list of 30 in the 2001 book with the list of 50 people Inc published in May 2014 as 'the most popular management and leadership writers, in the English language in the world?' The two lists have three names in common (John Kotter, Stephen Covey, and Ken Blanchard) and, sadly, neither is a role model for diversity. Rather, both lists overwhelmingly comprise white, western men. Yet, despite this, I was glad to see Peter Drucker (No. 29) on the Inc list.

Notably, none of those on either list write about 'digital leaders' specifically. They write about leadership and management in more general terms with (in the Inc list) the digital aspects woven in as part of the context and tools of the organisation. And this seems to be the right way to go.

What's additionally interesting about the Inc list is the technology-based methodology to get to it. It derived from the work of Jurgen Appelo, whose team factored in rankings, ratings, links, search ratios, and Twitter followers in an attempt to quantify popularity. The methodology is described in detail in the article. Had those same technologies been available in 2001 would that leadership guru list have looked different? It's clear that the tools available to do the job are instrumental in defining the way the job can be done. But do they also have a bearing on the characteristics necessary to do it?

Being a good digital leader seems to involve – at least according to writers of the article 'How To Be A Digital Leader', becoming digitally fluent, developing new capabilities, being willing to experiment, understanding how technology is transforming society, and translating this knowledge into business impact, promoting collaborative environments, using the information and not just the technology.

Or in another shot at defining digital leadership Mike Clarke offers 10 top tips: you don't have to be a techie, you don't need an organisation, its 24/7/365 and chaotic, you listen more to people with opposing views, restrict social media access and you may lose your followers, inspire in 140 characters and trust your staff, be courageous, use multiple platforms to source ideas and communicate success, think real time not part time, review and dismantle barriers.

If there are some common characteristics of leaders which (apologies to academics and theoreticians) seem to boil down to being trustworthy, understanding and doing the few things that are important, and inspiring people from a platform of integrity, decency and trust in them, then the digital technologies are available to enable more channels through which to demonstrate those characteristics. I suggest that good leadership characteristics remain fairly stable but skilled use of the digital technologies is now a requirement for leaders to demonstrate.

This is the tack taken by IESE, a business school. In their programme Business Transformation in the Digital Age, executives are taught to become digitally fluent, 'so that they can integrate digital thinking into their everyday … The challenge is not the technology per se, but rather how business leaders adjust organizational processes and cultures to take advantage of the benefits the technology offers.' As part of this digital leadership IESE professors think that 'leaders should also encourage employees at all levels of the organization to develop digital competencies themselves: the more digitally literate a workforce, the greater their potential to contribute to value creation'. See this short video that explains this view.

With the technologies in mind, if we do want to extend the list of well-established 'analogue age' leadership characteristics to include those for a 'digital age' then I propose three: willingness to experiment, connecting with stakeholders (via social media), translating societal shifts driven by technologies into transformed business processes.

Do you think digital leaders need more/different characteristics than analogue leaders? Let me know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s