Six leadership development truths organisations cannot do without in the digital age

While the intent and investment organisations put into leadership development are significant, it’s not working out for them in the digital economy. Here’s why a new model of leadership is needed.


Believe it or not, leadership development is growing as a concern for most organisations with every passing day. Traditional leadership rubrics are being ruled over by new traits and ways, as digital transformation across fields is redefining the entire human dynamic, including impacting the workforce. While organisations are generously investing in leadership development, most find they’re not reaping the best results.

As per a Fortune magazine study, a mere seven percent of Fortune 500 CEOs think their companies are building effective leaders. A McKinsey study says that leadership development is a multi-billion-dollar industry, accounting for roughly one-third of all learning & development spending. While this clearly suggests that organisations are putting significant intent and investments into leadership development, it’s not working out for them. We ask, why?

The answer to this lies in the fact that the post-industrial age has ushered in a new way of working, resulting in the need for new leadership skills and competencies. Technology has created new job categories that were once the realm of science fiction. AI, machine learning, automation, and data science have gone from our imaginations to our realities. New functional areas like DevOps have emerged. New methodologies like agile and design thinking have taken a firm hold across organisations. Cross-functional work is now the norm. Advances in communication have connected global teams, collapsing distances and requiring effective global and virtual collaboration.

This sweeping digital transformation has resulted in a new work paradigm. Organisations are breaking down silos, redistributing decision-making, and flattening the corporate hierarchy into connected networks. Now that the business world is smarter, faster, more agile, and more democratic, and the leader of the past is rapidly becoming obsolete, organisations need to take a fresh look at how they develop modern leaders.

Here are six truths of leadership in the digital age:

1. No more leading direct reports. Leaders now guide agile teams and ad-hoc tribes

Conventional corporate hierarchy is now being replaced by flexible, cross-
functional teams that come together to execute projects that may spread out over weeks, months, or years. Rather than manage a group of direct reports who execute whatever is commanded from above, modern leaders are expected to guide and manage diverse, global teams which function with agility, autonomy and with a constant focus on innovation. Leading mission-driven teams requires a new set of competencies and the ability to lead through motivation and influence, rather than authority. Empathy is, in fact, the new authority.

2. Good leaders don’t command and control. They connect and collaborate

The leader of today can no longer be the hero, the absolute authority who decides the rules of the game and commands and controls the team to follow them. In an environment where teams are expected to be innovative, agile and collaborative in tackling complex problems, leaders need to be proactive and adaptive in understanding and accepting the nuances of team dynamics and how they impact work. Leadership in the digital age is all about coaching – encouraging and facilitating cross-functional collaboration to generate diverse ideas for innovative solutions. The ability to shape, influence and guide are hallmarks of a successful digital leader.

3. Micromanagement is dead. Managed empowerment is in

Leading is no longer about mandating and enforcing a predetermined direction for the team. Instead, the modern leader is expected to shape the team context and course-correct when required. Today’s leaders should nurture an environment of shared purpose and trust, where employees feel comfortable to exchange ideas and take risks. To take the business to another level, leaders must encourage a culture of collaboration and initiative, so teams are empowered to make decisions autonomously.

Read more about leadership development truths in the digital-age and how to develop leaders better. Click here

4. Leaders are measured by innovation, not just execution

As touched upon earlier, the leader role has evolved from merely overseeing
execution to fostering a culture of innovation. Technology has disrupted business models in so many ways that companies are feeling increased pressure to accelerate their pace of innovation. As a result, leaders must learn to recognise trends, identify opportunities and embrace promising ideas. Beyond simply adopting the latest software fads, digital leaders need to learn to appreciate and understand the potential of leveraging new technologies like AI, machine learning, RPA, and big data. By encouraging experimentation and keeping a pulse on external trends, leaders can position themselves on the frontlines to effectively support their organisation’s strategic agenda.

5. Digital leaders require new mindsets, not just skillsets

Developing effective leaders today necessitates a change in mindset as skills alone will not suffice. Since it is no longer just about execution, but also foresight, strategy and the ability to predict the future and plan accordingly, leaders certainly need a specific mindset to stand tall. While skillsets are one-dimensional, mindsets are contextual. Mindsets inform leaders’ actions and allow them to act and react in ways that drive innovation. Mindsets unlock the lateral thinking needed in times of change, uncertainty and ambiguity. They encourage innovative behaviours, which, in turn, reinforce expansive mindsets. While a skill may be learned once, a mindset must be regularly strengthened through continuous learning.

6. Leadership is democratising

In a workplace that has ad-hoc, cross-functional and project-based teams, a top-down leadership development strategy no longer makes sense. Because work happens in teams, organisations must develop leaders at all levels of an organisation. In many cases, this is already happening on its own. As organisations shift from siloed hierarchies to flatter networks, members of mission-driven teams are stepping up to guide and influence. Harnessing this organic trend, some companies are actively “democratizing” their leadership programs. They’re spreading leadership development more evenly across all levels of the organisation, rather than concentrating training solely on more senior executives. To build their bench of talent for emerging leadership needs, these companies are increasingly preparing individuals at all levels with foundational leadership training.

Having established the six truths of leadership development in the digital age, it is important to examine the steps required to achieving a new model of leadership. Skillsoft shares three actions to take. The first, it suggests is developing talent on their way to the top rather than waiting for employees to become managers to develop them as leaders. Next, teach coaching to managers since they may not instinctively know how to develop their people. According to Skillsoft, coaching allows managers to help their employees reach their goals by establishing rapport, identifying performance gaps, and using questioning and listening techniques. Coaching is becoming increasingly crucial to retaining top talent, creating a culture of innovation and growth, and realising the value of a workforce.

Lastly, it is important that organisations instill growth and learning mindsets as fixed or rigid mindsets often result in leaders acting on tried-and-true methods rather than taking risks. In addition to risk takers, modern leaders with the right mindset are able to learn, adapt and perform as the situation demands. Adopting new mindsets, says Skillsoft, requires continuous learning and reinforcement through modeled behaviour—and this sustained effort is essential to effective leadership today. By developing modern mindsets in their leaders, organisations can develop opportunity-spotters and opportunity-creators.

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