How Digital Leadership Is(n’t) Different

When describing the new digital reality for organizations, people tend to fall into two camps. Some argue that the future will be more like the past than not, agreeing with the sentiment, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1 Others think the future will be more novel, believing, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen: It is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.”2

Either way you look at it, as organizations seek their footing in a turbulent business environment, they require strong leaders at the helm. Senior leaders must not only articulate a vision people can rally around but also create the conditions that enable digital maturity, attracting the best talent and bringing out the best in the talent they attract. The rapid changes associated with digital disruption can be disorienting, so many of us assume the leadership handbook must be completely rewritten for the digital age. Is this true? Or are greater and greater levels of uncertainty causing us to neglect the essentials? Is it possible the leadership challenges of the digital world are more the same than different but we are overly focused on what’s different because we are so alarmed by the threats to the status quo?

There is something to be said for both arguments. Over the past five years, in a joint research project with MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte, we have studied how business and leadership are changing as a result of digital disruption. (See “About the Research.”) We have found that while many core leadership skills remain the same, the particular demands of digital disruption call for certain new skills as well. Here, we will explore which are which and what we can learn from organizations that are digitally maturing — that is, those that have been transformed by digital technologies and capabilities that improve processes, engage talent across the organization, and drive new value-generating business models.


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What Makes Digital Leadership Different
Leaders face new challenges as a result of digital disruption. The biggest changes respondents cited in our research are the increased pace of doing business, the shift in organizational culture (and the corresponding tensions between “change makers” and employees with a traditional mindset), the need for a flexible and distributed workplace, and greater expectations of productivity. So it stands to reason leaders need to adapt or augment some of their core skills to navigate the digital world. To identify which capabilities matter most in organizations, we asked survey respondents, “What is the most important skill organizational leaders should have to succeed in a digital workplace?” (See “What’s Distinctive About Digital Business and Digital Leadership?”) Taken together, the responses paint a compelling composite picture of what effective leadership looks like in a digital environment. The following traits stand out as most critical.

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