Digital leadership is human leadership

Disruptive technologies and nascent business models mean that traditional approaches to economic development and business management are no longer sustainable. We need to innovate the way we do things, including the way we structure and lead our organizations. There are many examples of both emerging and established organisations that are attempting to bridge the gap between existing business activity and future-oriented endeavors. Australian telco giant, Telstra, for example, is undertaking a major transformation of their entire business.

“Our T22 strategy…[is] about building a company agile and nimble enough to respond quickly to rapidly changing market dynamics and opportunities. To do that we need to change how we work.” Andrew Penn, CEO, Telstra (July, 2018).

Organizations such as Telstra are embracing a ‘human-centric approach to problem-solving grounded in human-needs, insights and ingenuity’ (Fabian and Fabricant, 2014).

Leaders in businesses embracing transformation are grappling with understanding how to motivate employees to engage in and build their capacity for collaboration and emergent processes to facilitate organisational agility. As well as requiring new behaviour from employees, these processes require managers to approach workplace leadership with a different style from that borne of the industrial revolution. The traditional ‘command and control’ approach is already being found to be an ineffective way to facilitate flexibility, inspiration and strong relationships (e.g. Sinek, 2014; Birkenshaw, 2017).

Professor Ed Hess, from the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, suggests that to succeed in the ‘smart machine age’ leaders must work on developing ‘enabling’ skills – the skills required to enable the highest levels of human performance in the pursuit of the organisational mission and meaningful purpose.

Hess and Ludwig (2016) outline four attitudes and behaviours that enablers should role model for their employees:

  1. Engage with the world as a lifelong learner, with an open, curious mind and a quiet ego (i.e. with a growth mindset see Dweck, 2015, Yeager and Dweck, 2012); this also helps create a culture of learning and tolerance of failure within the organization.
  2. Embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity like a courageous scientist who is trained to:
    • embrace the unknown and acknowledge the extent of what remains unknown;
    • learn by hypothesis testing;
    • look for disconfirming data (e.g. anomalies in patterns); and
    • be a data-driven decision maker by embracing evidence-based practice
  1. Excel at managing self through self-regulation, including how one thinks (i.e. developing metacognition), focuses attention, manages emotions and excels at otherness, in other words, have highly developed emotional intelligence.
  2. Enable the highest levels of human development and performance by creating and contributing to a culture based on psychological safety. By taking responsibility for personal development as well as ongoing employee learning and development, individual leaders can contribute to creating a learning organization (Senge, 1990).

Above all else, leaders must recognise that we are facing complex problems and challenges that we have not faced before and that this novel environment requires a new leadership mindset. There is no one-right-way to lead and there is no one-right-way to implement change in an organisation. Rather than teaching a particular approach to leadership, leadership development programs need to be intentional in raising awareness among emerging and established leaders with regard to all of the ‘moving parts’ of leadership and transformation.

Programs offering leadership development need to provide opportunities for executives and emerging leaders to develop the capacity for regulating the key factors that contribute to successful transformation and effective digital leadership, including changes that need to occur at the personal, interpersonal, business and industry levels.

For successful transformation in the context of disruptive technologies, we have to invest in people; if people don’t change, if attitudes and mindsets don’t shift, there will be no change, regardless of the intentions of your processes or introduction of new technologies. Digital leadership is human leadership. As leaders, we can’t command people to change, they change when they are ready. And people only change when they understand what and why and it feels safe to do so.

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Birkenshaw, J. and Ridderstrale, J. (2017). Fast/Forward: make your company fit for the future. Stanford University Press: Stanford, USA.

Fabian, C. and Fabricant, R. (2014). The ethics of innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Aug. 5, 2014. Available online at:

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Dr Shari Read is an award-winning educator with a focus on teaching skills for our digital future. As a clinically trained social psychologist and design enthusiast, Shari emphasises human-centred approaches to leadership, management and new ways of working. Her research and teaching in the area of transformation and change management emphasise the capabilities required to lead effectively through uncertainty and complexity.

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