Leadership paradigms in the digital age

People management issueS: Robert Mandeya

THE new world order as defined by the digital age presents a whole new dimension in the way societies, businesses and economies are shaped.

The new global realities of the current world order dominated by an unyielding technological progress which is disruptive is cause enough to rethink the way the leadership should redefine itself. This new age is gradually forcing us to rethink the way we perceive the traditional definitions of leadership, economy, wealth creation, business organisations and other institutional structures.

Impact of the digital age

The incessant technological progress characterised by the convergence of advancements in human communication, computing and content, to create the interactive multimedia and the information highway, has brought about the new age of networked intelligence. This phenomenon is likely to lead either to the enhancement or curtailment of leadership practices within the century. Given this evolution, this installment however posits that we are decades too late for leading by looking in the rear view mirror. The question is how we can mainstream the African values of ubuntu in this transformational wave. The future requires the right mix of leadership qualities to guide communities over this bridge.

Emergence of new structures

The New Social Structures are Generating New Leadership Styles with Different epochs producing different kinds of leadership – with different patterns of hierarchical authority, different skill sets and attitudes, and different institutional incentives. Invariably, such a shift in economic and social relationships holds promise and peril.
According to Masuda; Bell; Castells, the new society — variously called information society, knowledge society or networked society — is marked by four key structural changes reshaping leadership; rapid and far reaching technological changes, especially the digitalisation of information and communications technology, accelerated globalisation, a shift toward knowledge as the central factor of production and more distributed, less hierarchical organizational forms with greatly accelerated movement within and across organizations and sectors.

Leadership and adaptability

In this highly disruptive environment, leadership innovation and adaptability are critical, especially the leader’s capacity to channel the right knowledge to the right people at the right time in the right place. As a result, a post-industrial digital age style of leadership is emerging characterised by stronger horizontal linkages among elites across different sectors and even different countries, especially government leaders, private entrepreneurs and executives, researchers and civil society leaders.

Of course, there are caveats regarding the spread of digital leadership. First, there are timeless, universal characteristics of leadership that remain important today, such as passionate commitment, focus and discipline, charisma, and other features identified by observers of leadership over the ages. In this regard Weber, Bennis assert that these qualities have not been supplanted but they co-exist in a different mix with other factors.

Second, the new leadership will vary somewhat from country to country, culture to culture, and sector to sector, most visible in economically advanced societies and in the information communication technology (ICT) sectors. These dynamics however calls for a strong progressive leadership who will be responsible for the transformation or will be the agents of change in this new era.

It goes without saying that the new societal conditions are eliciting new forms of leadership necessary to launch and sustain the transitions toward more knowledge intensive societies. Leadership in the Digital Age needs new attitudes, new skills, and new knowledge gained through unique professional experiences responsive to the societal features identified above.

New leadership sensitivities

Leadership in the digital age must distinguish between two related but different leadership categories. The most inclusive is “leadership in the digital age”, which refers to leadership in any institution or sector embedded in the broader transitions toward a more knowledge intensive society. All leaders whether leaders in health, education, the arts or in manufacturing must be aware of the new constraints and opportunities ICTs provide, and use them effectively.

The second, “digital leadership”refers to leadership in the core sectors of the knowledge society – the three ‘C’s of computing, communications and content (broadcasting and print), and now multi-media.

The two styles of leadership are closely linked – many leadership innovations originated in the core ICT sectors and diffused from there, such as the use of website portals to link subordinates, customers and suppliers.

Opportunities and threats

Digital leadership innovation is not static but changes through time. (cf. Rogers) Since technology innovation is so highly dynamic the mix of leadership skills required also changes. For example, the Internet industry passes through pre commercial, commercial, competitive and consolidation phases. In Silicon Valley, the development, manufacture, commercialization and marketing of silicon chips and the personal computer was variously led by such leaders as William Hewlett (Hewlett Packard), Andy Grove (INTEL), and Steve Jobs (Apple Computer).

Individual attributes

Digital leaders are distinguished from non-leaders by their different combinations of skills, attitudes, knowledge and their professional and personal experiences.

Leadership must be driven by unique attitudes appropriate for the distributed, digital age. Digital leaders must be flexible and adaptable, and possess wide intellectual curiosity and a hunger for new knowledge.

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.