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Leadership in the digital age

Robert Mandeya:People management issues

THE last American election, which ushered in Donald Trump, brought in a whole new perspective to leadership. In many communities within and outside America, Trump’s victory was received with disdain, consternation, indifference and in some cases downright disapproval. Trump’s way of doing things or rather his approach to leadership was and is still viewed by many as an affront to the standard dictates of leadership decorum.

His style of leadership has invariably shaken the common and usual “decency” associated with leadership. His unpredictability and reliability on digital platforms, particularly Twitter for communication has all but disturbed the common tenets of leadership behaviour expected in “normal” political marketplace and business communities alike.

The disruptive age
I particularly find nothing wrong with the way Trump is doing, save to say he has brought in a totally different style of leadership which has disturbed many in the comfort zones of conservatism. The pervasive nature of the digital age has even upset the norm in communication at family level. Society at large is grappling with the realities of this new disruptive age which calls for everyone to review ways of doing things.

The digital age is giving a total new meaning to leadership and communication. To lead is to communicate. Leadership therefore is a form of communication. How one leads has a lot to do with how one communicates.

Hierarchical approach
In a hierarchical organisation, the communication system is organised mostly vertically. So is leadership. In this case the superior assigns tasks and shows the way; subordinates follow and report the results. This system superficially appears efficient, but it is not because it tends to perpetuate the sort of relationship that most of us would not condone.

A horizontal approach
Communication in a learning society follows a different pattern. It is not vertical, but horizontal. It is always two-way. It has nothing to do with force or authority. It rejects hierarchy. It is always demonstrated in the form of a dialogue. Everybody participates; everybody learns. Therefore, the pattern of leadership in this system follows the pattern of communication. In this case everybody is at once a potential leader and follower; or rather everyone is a leader working with other leaders to achieve a common understanding of the issue at hand, the options available, and the choices to be made. As such, everyone works towards a common meaning, a vision of life that all may share.

The new notion of leadership
This notion of leadership may appear somewhat whimsical at first, but it is not. It may appear utopian because we are used to the hierarchical form of communication. Hierarchical communication is what most of us have known at home, in school, at work, and in places of worship. Because this is how we have been brought up, we must work diligently to break our old habits. Once we accept the possibility that we can learn and decide together, we will be on our way to a significantly different and more productive interrelationship creating a far better future.

Leadership in the new age
The digital age does not take away the aspect of influence in leadership. By its very nature, leadership is an influence process; it is about going somewhere.

To go somewhere, one needs to have a goal, a vision. So leadership is about developing a vision. A vision is more than just setting a goal. It involves a picture of the good, an ideal, and an idea of what the work we do would look like if we did it well. Leadership, therefore, cannot be aimless. It has to have direction or it is not leadership. But how do we go about defining the goal, setting the direction, launching implementation, and identifying the criteria for measuring success? Must the process follow the pyramid model?

Since we are still attuned to the social conditions of vertical leadership, we need to talk about the leading ideas that can help us make the transformation to leadership in learning societies (digital age).

Organised leadership
Because horizontal leadership is based on give and take, the end is never quite settled until a community of vision and meaning is achieved. Ends and means are in a flux and no end is important or sacred enough to justify all means. This does not mean that participants do not hold strongly to their opinions or do not think highly of certain ends. Rather, they approach the issues in a framework that is significantly different from the hierarchical model. The framework for leadership in this age may consist of the following components: Organisational fluidity, orderly distribution of power, mutual respect, voluntary assent and systems thinking.

What it means is that the digital age requires us not to be enslaved by technology but rather to be disciplined in the manner in which we organise our content, control content, choose how to distribute it. All this has to do with how we engage the different stakeholders in our sphere of doing business or social interaction. This will all mirror the way we relate and deal with others in a given frame of reference.

Ethic of leadership in the digital Age
In order to exercise ethical leadership in the digital era, we need to establish a suitable framework for it. The framework would include the points I mentioned above. However, setting up such a framework presupposes that attitudes, traits and dispositions already exist, which will help produce and sustain the framework, when in fact these attitudes, traits and dispositions must be learned. They are part of the process of organising learning as leadership or conversely, leadership as learning. This process and its outcome are called “the ethic of leadership” in the digital age.

Mandeya is a certified executive leadership coach, corporate education trainer and management consultant and founder of Leadership Institute of Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/ or info@lird.co.zw, Facebook: @lirdzim and Mobile/WhatsApp: +263 719 466 925.

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