What does digital leadership mean and why does it have so many implications and shifts for leaders? The new focus and the new challenge.
The digitalization push is currently having the effect of an adrenaline injection on leaders. Some celebrate the concentrated energy, while others are overwhelmed and disoriented. Digital leadership is the buzzword for the new paradigm in leadership.
What is digital leadership and what does it entail in concrete terms? That’s what this article aims to shed light on.
What is digital leadership?
With digital leadership comes the claim that leadership should become more agile and flexible. Can companies live up to this and what effects does it trigger?
In a study by the University of Frankfurt, digital leadership is defined as follows: “Leadership in companies through the use of new methods and tools by managers, such as for collaboration in social media, in performance evaluation through online-based, mobile systems, or in project management through methods such as Scrum, BarCamp, or similar. By being open to using these tools, executives are showing that they want to be more agile, network within the company and let employees participate more in processes.”
Jochen Mai, founder of the Karrierebibel, defines digital leadership this way: “Ultimately, digital leadership is about using clear thinking to leverage a company’s strengths to achieve economic goals. Digital leadership is much more than just dealing with the Internet. It’s about accompanying, organizing, delegating and managing the transformation process of digital change.”
Frank Kohl-Boas, head of HR for Europe at Google, puts it this way: Ultimately, leadership means achieving results through others. Digital leadership means pursuing absolute “user centricity,” the absolute focus on engaging people – as users, customers and as employees.”
Shifts due to digital leadership?
As we can see, there is no single definition. What specifically is happening, what shifts are taking place, and what is their impact? Let’s look at this at different levels.
Technologies are changing rapidly. Leadership tools are also undergoing a kind of disruption, that is, the disruptively experienced version of change. Digital leadership means dealing with the use of social media, networking platforms, agile project management, etc. in a concrete way. Leaders are required to know and use the new tools.
Familiar hierarchies from the era of industrialization are dissolving. Leadership no longer operates from the distance of an executive office with its own elevator. Founders from the baby boomer era are handing over to the successor generation, which defines leadership differently: flatter structures with more co-determination. One example of this is Dina Elektronik GmbH, which was very successfully transformed into a holocratic company by the founder’s son Stefan Najib.
Opinionated micromanagement will no longer be able to survive. Digital leadership focuses on participation and supporting all agile workers in self-organization.
Every relationship thrives on closeness. In the working world, this used to mean physical proximity in the company building or at face-to-face meetings. Digital working dissolves the spatial relationship to the workplace. Contact in the shared office, in the conference room, in the kitchenette, at a meeting in a canteen hardly exists anymore. Physical proximity is being replaced by emotional proximity. Empathic leadership welds a team together and binds it to the company. Control is a challenge that should be discussed and regulated transparently.
Where the place in the hierarchy was celebrated via status symbols such as company car, preferential parking space, office size, one has to come up with new ideas. One trend is toward creative job titles. The “Head of …” is used rather inflationary and not very meaningful, as one headhunter complained in a conversation. The question is whether status symbols have outlived their usefulness. Do they fit into a time when flexible working hours in favor of children are valued more highly than salary?
How digital leadership is changing the focus
What are the consequences of these shifts? What can this look like in concrete terms? Here are a few suggestions.
Technology competence becomes individual
Technology competence is no longer at home in IT. It can no longer be delegated. If you want to lead, you have to acquire digital skills in the fields that connect people on a daily basis. Empathic leadership at a distance requires not only emotional competence, but also competence in using agile tools and platforms. The CEO with his own social media channel – business platforms such as LinkedIn also count as social media – is a “digital leader” who lives digitization instead of just preaching it.
Values must not remain empty bubbles in the corporate vision. One entrepreneur told me during the consultation that he had already developed a corporate mission statement with an external agency. This was hanging on the wall in the foyer of the company. When I asked him about it, he could not name a single value principle from this mission statement.
Values must be exemplified
Defining values is only the first step. They have to be authentic. Gerold Wolfarth has made the bk group a world market leader. His book “Profit is only a by-product” is a cornucopia of tips for entrepreneurial success.
He advocates honesty and transparency. In an interview, he told how he openly and unsparingly informed his team about the actual situation after a dramatic slump in sales. And he made the promise that no one would lose their job. In this way, he rallied each individual to the goal and made good on the promise.
Setting an example of values creates loyalty, as this example shows. Values are like guard rails that prevent us from going off the road. Values arise from an awareness of what is important. They are the foundation for the digital mindset. Read more about leadership awareness in digital transformation in this article.
The responsibility of the digital leader
Miriam Meckel, publisher of WirtschaftsWoche, put it in a nutshell at the Digital Leadership dialog: “No technological progress relieves us of the responsibility to be role models as leaders. If you want to take your employees from the analog to the digital world, you first have to put yourself in their shoes.”