There has always been a difference between those who adopt technology and those who are raised in it. All the way from the telegraph to social media, the first generation invents and adopts new communications technology, while the generation that follows is born with it, taking it for granted, as a part of daily life.
Nowhere is this truer than in business leadership, where the older generation of leaders who use social media and digital tech as simple tools are being outmaneuvered by the youth that uses tech as naturally as talking. Every business leader must ask themselves: How can I adapt to the daunting, fast-paced changes brought about by the digital age? And how can the next generation’s extraordinary potential be leveraged successfully?
First, we need to accept just how big these questions really are. The pace of change these days is astonishing, even for the younger leadership. To answer these questions, we must determine what effective leadership really is, and then decide what sets it apart in the digital age.
Who Is An Effective Leader?
This is a big question, possibly the biggest one of all. But perhaps the most basic qualities of not just a leader, but an effective leader are twofold: A desire to lead, and having care and generosity for followers.
To put it simply, you have to want to lead. It may seem obvious, but the picture we have of someone thrust almost unwillingly into a position of leadership and being great is mostly false. First and foremost, a person should want the position of leadership.
Second, they must be a caring leader. The picture of a leader who climbs the ladder and then kicks it out is not one of an effective leader. Great leaders are the ones that open doors and use their success to empower others. This creates loyalty and dedication to a cause. No leader will get the, likely younger and digitally savvy, people under them to come along if they cut them off at the knees.
Leaders must also be effective communicators. Good leaders must know when to speak and when to listen. They must be clear and concise, and not waste their team’s time rambling (As the saying goes, don’t have a meeting for what could be summed up in an email.)
More than that, good communication means explicit, clear statements of individual responsibilities and organizational goals. Good communicators know the best way to get their message across frankly, yet respectfully, and are ready to answer questions and clarify ambiguities. Effective communication builds trust and preempts suspicion and misunderstanding.
To expand on organizational goals: good leaders have a long-term vision. Nothing is more frustrating to a team than the feeling that their work is useless, or going nowhere. Good leaders orient their work towards the future of their team and their business, and can demonstrate how the work done now will pay off later. This involves a certain amount of self-assurance and optimism, and the ability to pass that on to their followers.
Good leaders are willing to change in the face of disruption. It may seem contradictory, but flexibility and agility help keep long-term goals within reach.
Being willing to change also entails a willingness to take responsibility and accountability for their actions and choices. The best leaders lead by example. If they make a bad call, they don’t make excuses and try to cover it up. They admit it honestly, address what went wrong, and communicate how they will do better in the future. This helps create a similar culture for their team, who won’t be afraid to admit to mistakes, build trust, and hold themselves to high standards.
We’ve heard this before, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” If there’s one lesson we must learn from the digital age, it is that complexity is impossible to avoid. This is why good leaders learn how to manage complexity and nuance. The my-way-or-the-highway method of leadership just isolates and alienates those on whom you will rely.
Leaders must solve problems as they come, dealing with each dynamic situation with care and complexity while balancing individual points of view, such that even those who disagree with a decision will still feel like they have been heard.
Applying Leadership Skills in the Digital Age
Now, the big question is: how does an effective leader put these skills to use in our current digital age? In short, one must put the following qualities to use:
- Adaptability: Everything’s changing, and so should you.
- Tech Proficiency: You can not effectively lead in the digital age if you don’t know how to use tech.
- Mentorship: Be willing to teach and learn from others.
- Empathy: Treat your team as more than cogs in a machine.
- Creativity: There must always be a place for imagination.
- Collaboration: A good team can change the world.
Not-so-short: Leadership in the digital age is highly complex and nuanced, ever-changing and ever-changeable, so you need to be ready for what’s to come, even if you aren’t exactly sure what’s coming.
This is why the first quality, adaptability, is paramount. This skill can lead to all the others. It is a cliché to say change comes fast in the digital age, but think of all the companies, tech included, that died or are floundering because they refused to adapt to a changing environment. Disruption is the watchword, and effective leaders are always prepared to lead their team in a new direction, adopt new digital tools, and learn new skills in order to keep up.
This leads to our second skill: Not every leader needs complete expertise on the tech their business uses, makes, or promotes. And it is probably better to leave the complexities of AI, Big Data, and machine learning to your IT department.
But leaders should humble themselves and keep up with tech proficiency if only so they can communicate and understand with their team (and external departments) effectively. No one wants to be led by the old guy who doesn’t know what an app is.
You should be able to comprehend how technology is applied to problems in your company and in your field and keep up with the major changes to that tech as time passes. You should have the capacity to address basic technical problems and communicate with others about them.
Think about it, everyone from surgeons to teachers to chefs train on the latest techniques and developments in their fields. That same standard applies to you.
Leadership is not innate, it is a process of constant teaching and learning, and good leaders will develop a two-way relationship with their team that both impart experience and learn new information from them. This means fostering an atmosphere of learning, sharing, and adaptation. Mentors should be like gardeners, tending to the needs of their teams so they can grow and thrive.
This, of course, requires a skill that everyone should cultivate, not just business leaders: Empathy. Every workplace changes as the next generation moves into the workforce. As this younger generation takes over, they are (quite reasonably) refusing to be indifferent to their company’s culture and values. Young professionals want to be inspired, respected, and motivated. How do older leaders do that? Through empathy.
Digital leaders must understand the teams they lead by demonstrating the value their work creates in the world. Whether that is driving business or benefiting society. Loyalty is built on understanding. A leadership style that focuses on listening and solving problems will increase your team’s productivity.
Additionally, no leader and no team in the digital age can get by without a certain amount of creativity. Digital technology has always been about the new idea, the next great thing. Creative leaders have the emotional intelligence to encourage lateral thinking, innovation, and efficiency, and to see possibilities where others don’t.
These creative ideas, integrated with technical knowledge, can help get you ahead of the game. A leader with a team that feels safe trying and testing new ideas is one that will eventually strike gold.
Finally, all of these skills can only be implemented and utilized with effective collaboration. While individual talents are important, and individual leadership is crucial, the overall effectiveness of any group is determined by a very simple force: teamwork. Good collaboration makes any team greater than the sum of its parts. And teamwork is based on trust and mutual benefit.
Getting team members to work together is essential. Leaders must be approachable, caring, knowledgeable about both people and technology, communicate well, and support their staff. Do this successfully, apply the skills mentioned above, and that kind of team can’t be beaten.
Considering everything that is required of good leaders in the digital age, the pressure to do a good job can feel overwhelming. But no one can be expected to be a great leader overnight. Everyone is on this journey together, and persistence, hard work, and patience are required to make it.
Even the best leaders make mistakes. The great ones learn from them, aren’t afraid of changes, and lift others up along with them as they rise. A leader that can integrate all these skills and still be open to the future will have limitless opportunities for growth.