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Defining Leadership in the Digital Age

17 min read

We are living in era that WEF founder Klaus Schwab has termed as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution.’ It’s an era where AI, gene editing, advanced robotics and other such things are blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.  

The magnitude of change brought by this revolution is so massive that it has resulted in unprecedented ambiguity and complex, unpredictable scenarios. Today, organizations across the world need highly agile leadership that could maneuver their teams through chaos and steer them towards success while preparing for a challenging future.  

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. —Ralph Nader” 

True leadership has always been characterized with being participatory rather than hierarchical. An effective leader encourages contribution and involvement, aiming to get the best out of the team.  

Leadership in the digital age is about empowering others and preparing them to lead. It requires existing leaders to create self-sufficient and self-organized teams that could handle daily operations on their own while also staying connected to the vision and long-term goals. 

In other words, the digital age does not require a total rewriting of the leadership concepts. On the other hand, it simply amplifies the need of dynamic leadership compared to the earlier era.  

How should a leader think like in today’s digital age? 3 characteristics  

The working population in the digital age consists of workers who have had a much wide-ranging interaction with the digital world than their counterparts a couple of decades ago. Therefore, it’s important for a leader to imbibe the following three characteristics in his or her mindset to successfully lead the modern workforce.  

The ‘people-first’ principle and working in the trenches

Today’s leaders need to adopt the ‘people-first’ principle. Instead of managing their teams, they have to actively engage them and boost participation. The people-first principle requires a leader to have a keen ear that is ready to listen to their team members. Instead of dictating or expressing the proposed outcome of any initiative, they have to ask the employees what they see and what role they are willing to take in it. Doing away with restrictions, eliminating insecurity is of paramount importance in the people first principle.  The new generation of workers expect leaders to not just be thought leaders with great vision, they expect their leaders to work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside them in the trenches. Successful leaders don’t sit back and dictate terms from their board rooms or curtained cabins. Instead, they roll up their sleeves, join their team and sweat it out with them, leading from the front. 

Developing trust and collaboration

In ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins has defined several aspects of companies and organizations that were able to grow from ‘good’ to ‘great’. One of the important characteristics he and his team found common across all ‘great’ companies was that their leaders ensured they got the right people aboard at the right time before moving forward.  Having a team with shared purpose is critical for collaboration. And collaboration is the key to success for leadership, especially in the digital age. Leaders should work towards developing an attitude of collaboration and willingness to work together.  Tsedal Neeley, the author of Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, spoke in length about trust in an interview with McKinsey. She classifies trust into two types. She says,  

“There are two types of trust. The first one is called cognitive trust, which is grounded in the belief and the understanding that others are dependable and have the competencies to be able to collaborate effectively on a common task. The second type of trust is called emotional trust. And it’s grounded in the belief that others have care and concern for us.   

Leaders and managers must ensure that they are developing emotional trust with the people that they’re working with. People need to know that their managers and leaders care about them. 

The cognitive trust you can almost confer right away. In virtual work, the term for this is actually swift trust—“Once I know you’ve got the qualifications to do the work, and once I know that you’re dependable, that you’re reliable, I will give you trust and we can get to work.” 

Give away the reins when and where needed

An important distinction between earlier work environments and the new age digital work environment is the fact that its comparatively more collaborative. This environment requires leaders to be quick in delegating responsibilities when and where needed.  Gartner’s contributor Sharon George has rightly said, “The digital leader will be comfortable handing over the reins.” This means, not only the leader will be expected to share his or her leadership, but would also be expected to know with whom to share the leadership. “Instead of a power position based on authority, the team will have situational, competency-based, even self-organized leadership. The CHRO and other C-level executives may be, by role, the essential overall leaders, but team leaders and domain experts will also play critical leadership roles,” Sharon writes.

 The core elements of the digital age’s leadership 

Core Elements of Digital Leadership

Businesses today are breaking barriers of growth. They are scaling hypergrowth by organizing their resources smartly and attracting the best talent. Needless to say, great leadership attracts great talent. Great workers tend to move towards organizations and teams where the leader cares about people success, shows true grit. Such a leader doesn’t function like a mere spokesperson of the CEO while also enshrining the company vision deep in themselves and the team. 

In the following, let’s explore the core elements of the digital age’s leadership.  

A leader cannot lead solo 

Farsighted businesses are structuring their teams in such a way that a single leader cannot lead solo. In other words, leadership is moving away from centralization of ownership to the distribution of ownership. Leaders will have to provide more freedom to their teams in decision making so that more employees are groomed into leaders. The more a leader drives participation, the more it will result in accountability.  

Never losing sight of things matter 

A leader needs to ensure that their team does not lose sight of things that matter. This is more important than ever today, considering how technology has seeped in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. The job of a new-age leader is to provide clarity about the ‘why’ so that their team can figure out the ‘how.’ How effectively a leader communicates the purpose and provides direction will reflect directly in how their team performs 

Providing your team with opportunities to experiment and execute 

With competitors breathing down their necks, only those businesses will survive that continually innovate. Great leaders always allow their teams to not only innovate but also experiment and execute their ideas to find solutions for challenges. Innovation is achieved only when leaders encourage experiments and are supportive when employees encounter failure.  

Building teams that could be swiftly assembled in mission-specific groups 

Speed has become a major determinant of success in today’s digital age. With constant changes and challenges cropping up every day, leaders will have to organize their teams in such a way that they could be assembled in groups to solve a particular challenge and then dissolved. This agility will ensure that the initiatives or projects you are working don’t lose significance due to the time factor.   

The digital age’s leaders don’t rest, they keep upskilling 

When it comes to upskilling, it’s important that the leaders keep upskilling themselves as well as their teams. The future beckons with exciting opportunities that could not be tapped into unless there is a strong push for upskilling. In other words, no leader can future-proof their business without constant upskilling of their workforce.  

How CHROs can become advisors to their CEOs in the digital age 

CHROs role in Digital Marketing

HR leaders are poised to play a very crucial role in these changing times. The aspirations of CEOs are shifting due to the digital revolution. As an HR leader, you cannot afford to play safe; you should actively engage in initiatives that drive digitalization. When a CEO puts their digital ambitions into action, you should aim at becoming a value-added partner in this journey. Gartner has outlined the five things you can do to achieve this:   

Move beyond ‘understanding the business’

As an HR leader, you should not limit yourself to merely ‘understanding the business.’ You should immerse yourself into the core business, especially the financials and view things from customers’ perspective. All of this will help them in presenting their point of view confidently in discussions related to key business strategies.

This is important because: 

  • You cannot properly impart influence or drive outcome without this strategic approach 
  • It will help you in planning the organization’s talent around its strategic vision 


Build trust with the CEO to challenge them when needed

As advisors, you may have to challenge their CEO if you see something that is counter-productive to the organization’s success. Yes, you must first seek permission to be the advisor who could call them out respectfully if they see something negatively impacting the company’s health. This requires building trust, not worrying about showing vulnerability and establishing credibility.

Walk the talk when it comes to change leadership

Naturally, you would have to walk the talk and demonstrate change leadership if you seek to inspire the same in their CEO and colleagues. You would have to ensure that organizational practices and processes are realigned to support innovation. Encouraging good behavior will help others emulate it on a wider scale. For example, if an organization seeks to encourage employees to experiment new initiatives, they should not be penalized for failure.

Leverage data to provide valuable insights

If you have stayed away from using data to identify HR or talent trends, it’s time to start doing so. Whether it’s retaining key employee segments such as high potential employees or identifying cost-cutting measures, use data to your leverage. Prepare plans to nurture strong performers to prevent their possible exits. Use smart HRMS tools to identify critical talent aspects such as attrition, turnover and engagement.

Prevent change fatigue through quick, tactical wins

Quick wins are very important to prevent yourself and your team from change fatigue. This will also help you demonstrate progress and rally others to your cause. Make sure your internal processes do not hinder your goals. Use automation-driven HRMS solutions to your advantage to simplify complicated processes. Nudge your CEO to communicate the organization’s aspirations so that everyone is always clear about the purpose of their work. 

The unstoppable combination of Level 5 leadership and data 

Organizations scaling hypergrowth focus equally on people success as well as organizational success, because both of them have become more intertwined in today’s digital age. Therefore, leaders are expected to have a view from above in order to solve challenges and ensure they don’t become bottlenecks for solutions. The traditional leadership pyramid has been reversed as leaders seek solutions from employees to overcome complex challenges and problems.  

In his book ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins has defined a level of leadership that he and his team found to be common in organizations that continuously performed and succeeded against all odds. He termed it as ‘Level 5 Leadership.’ According to Collins and his team, Level 5 leaders exhibit a unique and powerful mixture of personal humility and unwavering determination. Though extremely ambitious, they direct their energies first and foremost towards their organization and its purpose, and never their own selves.  

Level 5 Leadership

Level 5 Executive 

Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. 

Level 4 Effective Leader 

Catalyzes commitment to and a vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards. 

Level 3 Competent Manager 

Organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of pre-determined objectives. 

Level 2 Contributing Team Member 

Contributes individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting. 

Level 1 Highly Capable Individual  

Makes productive contribution through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits. 

Now, imagine this type of leadership supported by today’s modern, digital and smart decision-making tools. This era requires the combination of Level 5 leadership and structured data so that leaders are empowered to take the right decisions at the right time. 

Peter Drucker very wisely said, “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”  

This is exactly what the digital age requires from its leaders.  

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    Meet the author

    Ahmed ZD

    Ahmed is a storyteller and a bookworm. He has joined Keka to be a part of its HR transformation cause. He loves telling untold stories and believes that all objects (even a brick that has fallen from a wall) and living beings have unique stories that deserve to be told. He is a firm believer that no movie can ever do justice to the book it's based on and it's his lifelong mission to convince everyone he meets to read books before they watch movie adaptations.


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