A Shift in Leadership for a Digital World

The challenges of the digital revolution are compelling us to review our understanding of what comprises good leadership.  In the not too distant past, one of middle managers’ main responsibilities was the transfer of information throughout the organization.  Today much of that information is available at a click of a button.  In the not too distant past, most of the information was to be found at the top of the organization.  Today it is everywhere throughout the organization and it is quite likely that key strategic information does not necessarily reside in the C-Suite. 

As a matter of fact, in the era of Big Data, there is such a flood of information, that top management alone is not able to keep up with the volume.  Dealing with the mass of information has become the responsibility of all levels of the organization.

What does this mean for leadership?

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Leadership fundamentals

Viewed from a general perspective, the fundamentals of leadership have not changed.  What leaders do remains the same.  Leaders still need to do the fundamental basics:

  1. Provide DIRECTION: Leadership by definition is about showing the way.  Leaders need to clarify what that way is.  This includes not only setting goals, but also in many cases clarifying the assumptions behind the goals.
  2. Create ALIGNMENT: This is probably the most difficult and less glamorous of leadership roles but essential to success.  It requires both a mastery and clarity in communication and in many cases also requires perseverance.  The direction may be clear, but if there is a lack of understanding or misunderstanding or outright disagreement, achieving the set out goals is made difficult if not impossible.
  3. Inspire COMMITMENT: Extraordinary results can only be achieved when people take ownership of the task at hand. It makes a huge difference if I do something because I “have” to do it, or I do something because I “want” to do it.

If the fundamentals haven't changed, what has changed?

Distributed Leadership

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What has changed is the dimension of the leadership challenge.  Leadership is no longer the domain of a select few.  Leadership is needed at all levels of the organization.  What is required is distributed leadership.  Both the shop floor worker as much as the CEO need to be able to respond to the leadership challenges that they face. 

This shift in leadership becomes evident when we compare to companies from the same industry: Schlecker and DM.  Schlecker was run in a traditional way.  All decisions were made by a few board members.  Employees were given little if any leeway to make decisions or take initiatives.  The end result is now well known, Schlecker went from #1 in the industry to becoming one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in German history.  DM on the other hand has long stated clearly its commitment to participatory management.  Employees are encouraged to participate in decision-making at store level – to be leaders at their respective level in the organization.  The founder of DM, Götz Werner has been known to say that the quality of the work environment is more important than profits. 

Sources of motivation

A distributed leadership environment works because it is in keeping with what motivates us as human beings.  The latest research indicates that there are three key drivers to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

All of us want to have a sense that we have some influence over the situation in which we find ourselves – that we can take action to help shape or change the world we live in.  The more sense we have of our own influence, the more we are willing to take action and assume responsibility.  This is the impact of Autonomy.

Mastery is about getting better at a given task.  There is an immense satisfaction in getting better at a given pursuit.  Mastery generates self-confidence and through past accomplishment promises future accomplishment.

Finally purpose is about meaning – a basic human need.  None of us can truly be motivated by a task where we do not find or understand its meaning.  We need to know the why in order to command the resources to deliver the how.

Distributed leadership fosters all three key drivers of motivation.  It provides the opportunity for autonomy.  The acquisition of leadership skills contributes to the sense of mastery.  Being part of the decision making practice promotes a sense of meaning.

The challenge for Top Management (organizational leaders would be a more appropriate term in a distributed leadership environment) in moving from more traditional forms of leadership to distributed leadership is giving up some of the control that they have gotten used to.  Distributed leadership requires a new set of tools with which to lead the organization.

New Instruments

Instead of control, organizational leaders need to be able to set the FRAMEWORKS in which autonomy, mastery and purpose can flourish.  Think of a FRAMEWORK as a canvas on which an artist paints.  The canvas sets certain restrictions on the artist – it is flat, has a certain size, is made of a certain material.  Whatever the artist creates is bounded by these physical restrictions.  Despite the limitations, the artist has enormous scope of possibilities at his/her disposal.  In business, frameworks are defined by the company’s mission, its goals, its aspirations.  FRAMEWORKS are essential to a distributed leadership environment.

The culture of the organization – what behaviors are encouraged, which are discouraged forms another fundamental FRAMEWORK in which autonomy, mastery and purpose take place. 

empty canvas

Equally important are tools of INCLUSION.  Traditional leadership works primarily on the basis of groups and teams.  These continue to be crucial, but distributed leadership also requires paying attention to the dimension of networks. Connecting large numbers of people in meaningful ways enhances purpose by providing a better sense of the whole and opens up new avenues for innovation.

Spider net with dew

The new paradigm of distributed leadership is beginning to take hold in some organizations.  The challenge for today’s organizational leaders is to make the adjustment by correspondingly extending and adjusting their current leadership practices.

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