Digital transformation and (new?) leadership models

Digital leadership is defined as a strategic management approach focused on the quality and functional value of a company's digital assets, including emails, digital documents, audible content, images, movies and other content stored on digital devices. But is it really new?

What does a digital leader look like?

Managing people and technology is an essential skill for digital leaders. They must be able to identify the needs of their teams and then select and implement the right tools to help them meet those needs. Digital leaders must also be familiar with the latest trends in technology and how these trends can impact the work of their teams.

In addition to these traits of vision and empathy, most definitions we can find of "digital leaders" refer to similar concepts: "those who are committed to the digital transformation of their company", or "are willing to take risks, experiment and learn the digital language". There is also a tendency to identify in these profiles the quality of recognizing the importance of collaboration and establish teams to work together rather than compete, as well as take responsibility for taking their company to the next digital level.

What are the characteristics of a digital leader?

Therefore, after reviewing recent literature on this so-called "new leadership", we could say that the main characteristics of a digital leader are:

  • Commitment to digital transformation.
  • Recognition of the importance of collaboration
  • Risk-taking and responsibility

These are characteristics common to almost any leadership figure. If we change "digital transformation" for any objective beyond mere business, we are left with three characteristics that are not new in profiles responsible for leading companies.

In a world of cycles, we can assume that at some point in our evolution, the need will be to "de-digitize" or re-forest certain areas. The non-digital leadership model that would emerge in this scenario would have the same basis as that of the profile that is being baptized as the "new digital leader", vision, empathy, character?

How do we define leadership?

If we attend to definitions of relevant characters, we can find:

"Innovation is what distinguishes the leader from the followers" - Steve Jobs
"If your actions inspire others to dream, learn and do more; you are a leader" - John Quincy Adams
"A leader is one who knows the way, makes the way, and shows the way" - John C. Maxwell
"Leadership is not about being in charge, it's about taking care of the people in your charge" - Simon Sinek

All of these characteristics should be found in a digital leader, and in anyone who must assume leadership positions.

If we look at the last decades, we have been able to observe an evolution of leadership towards Sinek's quote, the vocation of service, for the customer and for the team. This more "human" and empathetic management model has developed in parallel to the digital transformation.

Where does digital leadership come from?

The so-called "new digital leadership" has not been a direct consequence of digital transformation, nor vice versa, but undoubtedly the evolution of the role of "leader" in the last 40 years is marked by globalization and the impact of technology in different markets and in the lives of billions of people around the globe.

In the same way, many of the figures who led, or continue to lead, this transformation, respond to "leader" profiles that were unthinkable 50 years ago, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, through Dorsey, Branson or Vitalik. Each with their own particularities, but all of them atypical for "20th century leadership".

Female leadership

Another characteristic of the new leadership is that it is not exclusively male. In recent history, female leadership has gone from being the exception to, little by little, becoming normalized at a quantitative level. However, when we look for examples of internationally recognized CEOs, it is not so easy to find names of women who are on the lips of the general public.

Some examples are: Susan Wojcicki (51), CEO of YouTube since 2014, Lisa Su (50), CEO and President of AMD, Whitney Wolfe Heard (30), founder and CEO of Bumble, or Ginni Rometty (62), CEO of IBM since 2012 and the first woman at the helm of the company in 108 years.

All of them are testimony to the new leadership. Fairer, more inclusive and meritocratic. Digital transformation has been responsible for this to the extent that it has allowed information to be accessible globally and almost immediately. Digitalization has eliminated borders for ideas, it has dynamited the barriers so that the values that transform a society or a company can reach and transform others.

Change as routine and people at the center

This "globalization of change", largely a consequence of the digital revolution, is probably the most decisive factor in the transformation of the concept of business leadership. A globalized and hyper-connected digital world that, with information as fuel, is spinning faster every day for everyone, and the only rule is that we cannot be left behind.

A person who leads a great project, faces the same challenges faced by his or her generation, economically, socially, and even geopolitically. But each generation has its own challenges, and the person who leads must know enough to be able to empathize with the profiles that work in their teams, communicate with each person in their language, improving cooperation and never stop learning.

The people who will lead the great companies of the future, in short, will share many qualities with the leaders of the past: optimism, vision, enthusiasm, empathy and the ability to continue learning; they will not be entrepreneurs but "learners".

People who lead by working with one eye on the customers and the other on the teams. Courageous people, unafraid of change, who put people at the center.

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