New Tenets of Leadership in the Digital Era

A new era of digital is emerging and every organization, big or small, across industries and geographies will have to align with this new order. Imagine a cab driver without a smart phone and internet connectivity, a retailer without in-store management system, a doctor without a patient management system, a waste disposal contractor without a GPS enabled digital management system or a school without digital mechanisms to aid learning.

One can quote multiple such examples. In future it will be increasingly hard to imagine any organization which does not leverage the power of digital.

Digital enterprises operate with seamlessly connected network of people, processes, data and objects, both within and beyond the organizational boundary. Moreover, there is low future visibility, volatility, ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. Digital can help build the organizational capabilities to cope with the external environment. But a new approach to managing such enterprises, digitally embedded in their broader ecosystem, is also the need of the time. A whole new paradigm of leadership will be required, very different from the paradigm of command and control.

Here, I would like to discuss the basic tenets upon which the new paradigm of leadership shall be based. I have identified four such tenets- Tentative Strategy, Continuous Inquisitiveness, Paradox of Competing Agendas and Soft Power.

Tentative strategy

Embracing tentativity and living with an ever evolving idea of strategy is not easy. The traditional (and even the modern) approach to business management has treated strategic and operational as separate. First the strategy is created by the elite few and then it is operationalized by the larger organization. This separation is based upon long cycles of strategy with periodic reviews and course corrections.

The post modern approach, relevant for the digital era, however wants the distinction to go and strategy to be both an antecedent and an outcome of the operations. Strategy is never final and it’s formulated and reformulated based upon the realities of the competitive actions in the field. Living with such tentativity is like driving in fog with a visibility of only a few meters. The course has to be charted as the organization comes across newer realities in these few meters of visibility.

Continuous Inquisitiveness

Living with tentative strategy (which evolves along with the contours of the visible road and competitive actions on ground) and building a highly responsive organizational mechanism requires high level of inquisitiveness. This inquisitiveness is unending, continuous and satisfied only with multi faceted data. Visualising the kind of data needed for a query, culling the data from the enterprise system, deriving insights from the culled data and taking actions based upon the insights are important activities. These activities takes the front seat as leaders drive their organization through a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (in short VUCA) roads.

The leadership not only need to be inquisitiveness but they need to arouse such inquisitiveness across the organizational members and build structural mechanisms to channelize that inquisitiveness meaningfully.

Paradox of competing agendas

It’s really paradoxical; living with tentativity is possible only with a highly automated and operationally robust organization. Drawing again on the metaphor of driving in fog requires a very sophisticated vehicle fitted with latest communications technology and a functional mechanism for fast maneuvering.  The mechanism has to be firm and not tentative.

Organization is the strategy in the true sense.  A digital enterprise envisages alertness to the external happenings across the organizational boundary. Structures and mechanisms to initiate change and empowerment of operational staff to take decisions are a must.

Soft power

Command and control is hard power vested in authority, distinction between strategy and operations is a big power divide with power being centralized in the hands of the elite few. But such approach does not support the three aspects discussed earlier. Rather what is needed is a softer approach to power with emphasis on persuasive bases of power (influence, knowledge and empathy).

As organizations travel towards becoming digitally led, the leadership must also adapt and adopt newer aspects and build newer competencies relevant for the digital era.

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