Digital Workplace Leadership: The Big Nine

| By TMA World

The pace of technological change is so fast that it can often be difficult to understand its current implications for leadership.  You might have heard of Martec’s Law which states technology changes exponentially, organizations change logarithmically – meaning how an organization thinks and behaves is still hard and slow compared with the rate of technological change.  

How can organizations have the stability needed to operate as a recognizable entity, and the agility for swift responsiveness to volatile change?  Below is a simple diagram of how I think this will work within a digital workplace.


Leadership influence associated with formal hierarchical positions in the organization provides the stability.  Fluid leadership is leadership influence that comes from anyone in any part of the organization.  Both types of leadership need to be in a creative tension, but both driven by customer needs and wants. 

The downward arrow from the positional leader box represents the value those leaders can bring to fluid leaders, e.g. BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), governance policies, overall direction and strategy, decisions that impact the health of the whole organization.   The upward arrow represents the value fluid leaders can bring to positional leaders, e.g. specialist expertise, local knowledge, breakthrough ideas and innovations.

The up and down influence channels are patterned because there is a lot of non-linearity of communication in those channels, especially from fluid leadership sources like ad hoc teams, networks and communities.  Problem-solving and expertise groups can form in this fluid leadership space quite easily.  Sébastien Pacquet, a Canadian academic and blogger, referred to this capability as Ridiculously Easy Group Forming, e.g. groups forming on Twitter based simply on the use of hashtags.

The digital workplace itself is shaped by cultural and technological forces, with culture being the most powerful.  You can put a lot of social, mobile, analytical, and Cloud technologies into a digital workplace, but unless the culture drives high levels of openness, transparency, trust, and empowerment the benefits of digital working will never be realized.

What kind of leadership attributes are needed in this influence- and technology-based workplace?  Below are what I see as the Big Nine: 

1. Accountable:  The digital leader is accountable to him or herself as well as to others.  Freeloading (Getting by with giving minimal effort) is somewhat easier in a digital space.  Very often those collaborating digitally have no direct reporting relationship to others in the group, and don’t feel the need to take the initiative. Those taking on leadership roles in this environment must be extra vigilant in ensuring others are contributing and keeping their promises so that recalibration can be done quickly without too much loss.  Digital leaders are self-leaders, and expect self-leadership in others.

2. Adaptive: People in a digital workspace are distributed among different contexts, e.g. different organizations, geographies, cultures, and professions.  One size doesn’t fit all in technology usage, communication style, decision making, and methods and processes for getting things done.  Digital leaders must be open to experimenting and adapting. Awareness of self and others enables mutual understanding and appropriate adaptations to be made.

3. Collaborative: As Manfred Kets de Vries of INSEAD said recently, “Leadership is a team sport.  What’s really at stake here is finding the right combination of complementary talents.”  The digital workplace enables emergent and structured collaborations among diverse talents in ways never possible before.

4. Connected: The digital leader engages actively in networks that cross traditional borders, e.g. silos, and hierarchical levels.  Weak and strong network ties provide fast and easy access to rich sources of data, information, knowledge, and expertise.  This requires digital workplace leaders to pay attention to the breadth and depth of their networks and nurture them by, for example, sharing and reciprocating. 

5. Digitally Literate & Fluent: To influence others in a digital workplace requires basic skills in using each of the available technologies (digital literacy). It also requires the higher ability to utilize combinations of asynchronous and synchronous tools to achieve best results under different circumstances (digital fluency).

6. Disciplined: Digital leaders understand that the digital workplace can easily become chaotic and adrift from business goals and objectives.  Trusting to chance has a place, particularly when creativity is required, but much of the time temporary and extended structures, routines and processes are key to getting best results in a digital workplace.  Discipline is also necessary in communications which need to be purposeful and clear.

7. Empathic: Ego management, emotional intelligence, inclusion, and social skills are even more important in a digital workplace which depends heavily on trust built and maintained without physical presence. When working over distances and through technology people can easily feel ignored and/or misunderstood.  Empathic here doesn’t mean sympathetic; it means the ability to comprehend and respect the worldview of others, without necessarily agreeing.

8. Egalitarian: The beauty of the digital workplace is that people can contribute their best ideas via social tools no matter where in the organizational hierarchy they sit.  Those in the formal hierarchy can contribute direction and guidelines, but ideas and information must flow quickly and easily up, down, and across the organization to add value and be empowering. 

9. Engaging: It’s hard to be influential in a digital workplace without motivating others through your vision, communications and skills. Digital leaders don’t need to become movie directors, but they do need to take advantage of the media and interactive capabilities of available technologies.  Digital technologies enable greater self-expression in the workplace which can be very beneficial in building relationships and trust, but can cause great damage if abused.

How do you rate yourself on the Big Nine?

Digital Leadership Attribute                                  My Rating
Accountable                                                              Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Adaptive                                                                     Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Collaborative                                                             Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Connected                                                                 Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Digitally Literate & Fluent                                        Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Disciplined                                                                 Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Empathic                                                                    Low     1     2     3     4     5     High
Egalitarian                                                                  Low     1     2     3     4     5     High

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