Leadership in a digital age- more willow tree or oak?
At a recent meeting with my colleagues at Accelerating Experience, we ventured on to the well-worn path of leadership and what are the qualities that leaders need in today’s digital age?
We agreed on several points, some of which are ubiquitous, some more specific to this time and place. Most notably we agreed that the need for effective leadership has rarely been greater, given the degree of complexity, uncertainty and change. We also agreed that leadership is highly contextual, requiring a different mix of skills and attributes according to the business context and the challenges of the day. These vary widely between industries, the shape and size of organisation and what is happening on the ground. It is therefore all but impossible to be definitive. It is however possible to identify generic attitudes and behaviours that are necessary if individual leaders and their enterprises are to survive and thrive.
Firstly, the need for agility has rarely if ever been greater. In particular the need to adapt to inherent disruption makes agility a key differentiator. Much has been written about this and the message is by now Chrystal clear; those who innovate and adapt will have the chance to thrive, those who do not will become footnotes in history and there are already many examples to underscore the point.
Paradoxically, in spite of the technology and to a certain extent because of it and the ongoing war for talent, the need to prioritise your people is essential. If you fail to lead rather than manage, develop rather than train, inspire rather than tell or reward your people appropriately, your best talent will leave. Developing loyalty, trust and good relationships is an urgent priority if you are to harness their energy and talent, to ensure that the contribution of the team is greater than the sum of its parts.
Drawing on all of your emotional intelligence will be a critical success factor but equally don’t over complicate good leadership. At one level, as Richard Branson pointed out, leadership is all about treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself. Sometimes the simple truths backed by a strong moral compass are your best tools as a leader. Don’t lose sight of these amidst the fog and information overload which may surround you.
There is a temptation when the going gets tough to use fear as a management tool and to use numbers and targets more aggressively to drive performance. This is particularly evident in performance driven front office functions, but is also evident in back office and support functions too. I would urge caution here. Whilst fear may drive short term ‘performance’ it does little to engender longer term loyalty and engagement and the danger is that you will lose your brighter, talented people simply because they do not wish to be managed in this way. This is particularly true for the younger generations for whom ‘command and control’ is more likely to be anathema.
Far better the more enlightened, intelligent leadership which seeks to reduce the fear and inspire rather than cajole excellence. Fear stifles just about every worthwhile human emotion and the challenge of today’s leaders is to harness these emotions rather than supress them or pretend that they don’t exist. It is not possible to eradicate fear but by focussing on purpose (why are we here?), vision (what are we building?) and strategy (how are we going to deliver it?) you will arm your people with the courage to overcome their fears.
The need for a philosophical mind-set is essential if leaders are to survive the many slings and arrows of today’s business world. You need to be optimistic enough to hope for the best, realistic enough to prepare for the worst and resilient enough to smile, whatever happens. Leaders set the emotional tone and wellbeing of the enterprise and your people will be attuned to your emotional state. Make sure it is a positive one.
Rather than operating with a set of fixed assumptions and unhelpful or unrealistic expectations, it is far better to have a plan and a strategy and to accept that it is iterative and open to change if circumstances dictate. A philosophical approach (not to be mistaken for a lack of clarity or conviction) will enable you to bend with the prevailing winds and adapt to survive. More willow tree than oak. flexible not rigid.
That there are many ingredients that go into the making of a successful leader is hardly contentious. Some of these, such as agility and emotional intelligence are limiting factors, the absence of which would probably prevent even talented individuals becoming effective leaders. However, today more than ever your attitude and flexibility will be key.
Leadership in a digital age can be a lonely journey and destination, so If you can overlay these qualities with a philosophical approach and a well-developed sense of humour, all the better.
If you would like to discuss your own leadership challenges drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be sure to get back to you.