Leaders for a digital age

By: Lubna Haq


When I think about leadership today I am both excited and curious in equal measure. Excited because we have a whole new landscape in which to operate and the vista continues to open up. Curious about how businesses will respond and where and how they will focus on ensuring they have the right leaders for today and tomorrow.

So much has changed over the last 20 years at work.

Most significantly, our continued journey through the 21st century technological revolution. Normalisation of digitisation gathers momentum leading to the continued automation of jobs.

  • These developments are taking place whilst we are still recovering from the recession of 2008 and are now grappling with the implications of Brexit.
  • A multi -generational workforce is now a given and we haven’t really understood the implications of this or how we can positively harness the talents of our people.
  • We have an increasing number of independent and contract workers, with a different type of psychological contract and perspective with work and,
  • The blurring of the boundaries between work and personal life
  • It seems strange that the discussion around leadership hasn’t evolved enough in step with these changes.

These advances are no less significant than transitions like the industrial revolution. We have a great opportunity to think again about what we need from our leaders in line with the economic, environmental, political and sociological changes taking place

The reality is that many organisations now operate in flatter and more matrixed environments.

Despite this, many Executive teams haven’t effectively embraced this different way of doing business. From my experience, they recognise and talk about the need for leaders to collaborate without authority and work in partnership, but there is little evidence of real behavioural change. This is not because people are resistant, but change is always tricky. Most organisations still seem to be trying to fit a traditional structural hierarchy onto a modern-day business environment. They haven’t yet had the conversations that will clarify the leadership skills that are now a necessity from our leaders. Add to this mix that we still feel the urge to give our leaders a label of the type of person they need to be – heroic, consultative, charismatic, transformational etc., –  and we have a recipe for stagnation.

It makes sense to me to encourage senior leaders to take the leap they already know needs to happen. Most recognise that as roles and organisations continue to flex during rapid technological developments, our leaders need to think and behave very differently. It is time to move away from a formulaic response to what a leader should be and think about the different styles of leadership required for different situations and roles.

This means managing talent in a totally different way. Helping people transition into a leadership role becomes ever more important with more differentiated help and support needed for individuals. It is not fair or feasible to promote someone because they are simply good at what they currently do. We want to equip our leaders with the right tools for success long term.

As the digital era continues to evolve, the jobs that aren’t automated will require both higher IQ and, critically, higher EQ to connect across an increasingly diverse, intergenerational range of stakeholders. This means we need to break away from our previous practices with regard to what we thought were successful leadership behaviours. We need a very different type of leader to support and develop others.

This requires a significant mind-set shift. We need to be much more discerning about who we put into what specific leadership role. We need to look at the individual in the round: have we explored their leadership preferences or what behaviours they currently exhibit? Very importantly, what type of leader does the role they are being recruited for require? To set both the individual and the organisation up for success, we can’t just generically put people into leadership roles and hope for the best.

So, here are some top tips for developing our future leaders:

  • The senior leadership team need to explore the types of leaders needed for the different and varied roles across the organisation. This is critical to successful current and future strategy execution.
  • Ensure that you create clarity and alignment about role and leadership requirements across different stakeholder groups. This will help with engagement and help people understand why things need to be done differently.
  • Review and refresh your talent management strategies to take account of the new technological environment. Think about the competencies needed and how you spot and develop those with potential.
  • Review and refresh the leadership support and development you provide to your leaders. This can no longer be generic leadership programmes. It must be focused on the behaviours needed to collaborate in a non- traditional structure.

Paradoxically, in our increasingly digital business environment, our leaders need to be more ‘human’ drawing on their EI, empathy and ability to engage and connect. In a time of radical and sometimes overwhelming change, the ability to have meaningful conversations, build trust, develop and lead others has never been more vital. Ways of facilitating these conversations is critical.

Lubna Haq

Lubna is an experienced business leader. Most recently she worked as a partner in a global company responsible for designing and introducing leadership programmes targeted at middle managers.