Why people get it wrong when it comes to digital leadership


June 8th, 2015


rhetoric 2One of the things I find interesting, and, if I am honest, bugs me, is the amount of rhetoric, hyperbole and polemic that the interweb teems with when it come to the word ‘digital’. Now, I like to deploy a good turn of phrase myself from time to time, so what is it that narks me here?

I think it is the extent to which we (I include myself) are prone to making bold statements without considering evidence and data. Let me give you an example: what, exactly, do we mean by ‘digital’, and what are the implications for leaders?

Let’s start with defining what we mean by digital, because that is where most of us go wrong. Let me explain. The following are two statements that purport to define what digital is and is not.

This was a Tweet I saw earlier this year (sorry, haven’t been able to find the source but my memory is still reasonably good):

“Digital is not a technology, it’s the speed at which things happen”

But no! That’s not right, this is:

“Digital isn’t software, it’s mind set”

Aaron Dignan

And therein lies the problem. Neither is right.  Dictionaries. Old school. I like them.

(Of signals or data) expressed as series of the digits 0 and 1, typically represented by values of a physical quantity such as voltage or magnetic polarization. Often contrasted with analogue. Relating to, using, or storing data or information in the form of digital signals: digital TV a digital recording Involving or relating to the use of computer technology: the digital revolution

Oxford Dictionaries

The truth is our dictionaries haven’t caught up with life. There has always been a gap between the bleeding edge of technology (apologies, that is a rhetorical term I dislike, but, hey, I said I do it too….), and social processes, whether these be in communities, society, organisations or teams. Digital, however you define it, just makes that gap widen more and faster.

For managers and leaders, that is a challenge. As Mark Stevenson pointed out in his Meaning 2014 talk, technology isn’t changing five times faster than management, it’s accelerating five times faster than management. And if, as Niels Pflaeging puts it, “all management is quackery anyway”, then those in charge really have their work cut out.

Mark Ralphs of Bloom said to me recently he still meets people:

“… who are struggling to drive the change through middle management and perhaps underestimate the challenge, i.e. they state the ambition, which is then not followed through by the ‘doers’.”

That sounds like a lament I have heard from many in ‘analogue’ let alone ‘digital’ organisations. So what’s really changed, and what does that mean for leaders?

“Clients often start with the question: what is digital. And it always depends on who is asking. A better question is: what are the consequences of digital? What do we have to do differently?”

Richard Gold, Associate Director at Transform

I like Richard’s provocation. It cuts across all the grandstanding and asks the fundamental question. In terms of leadership, my view is that the role of leaders has always been one that both requires them to be comfortable in and with ambiguity and uncertainty and to be able to lead others through that. Leading through clarity and certainty? Not so much of a challenge.

I will take a leap here. Digital, however you define it, ramps up both ambiguity and uncertainty, and is upping the rate of change all the time. Social processes are lagging behind, and leaders and managers are, in many instances, struggling. If you are one of the latter two, your challenge is to develop yourself to lead and manage in a digital age. This means, amongst other things:

  • Becoming increasingly comfortable with what it means to be truly user/customer centred
  • Being collaborative and doing so balancing the need to both support and challenge those around you, in particular having constructive conflict ad robust dialogue when needed, regardless of position/status
  • Understanding that innovation is about risk taking, and being prepared to do the dance required i.e. you might make mistakes and get things wrong, and so will your people. You ok with that?
  • Developing your own resilience and adaptability to enable you to both stay grounded and be agile relative to context and need.

As Emmanual Gobillot says:

“Whilst a leader’s role has always been and will remain the creation of engagement, alignment, accountability and commitment to the organizational cause, in this new landscape the tools they use will need to change. Where once they relied on clarity, plans, roles and money to achieve these aims, they will need to find new tools.

And that means both doing and being differently in the context of the changes that digital and social media are, and I suspect will, continue to bring for a while yet.

This blog post originally appeared on Bloom Worldwide.

Steve Hearsum is Programme Director for the Digital Leadership Programme