Leadership in a digital age


Leadership is a challenge for every leader every day. The challenges of leadership have changed over time. It is not only the people you lead but the environment in which you lead determines your style.

I wanted to reflect on what will leadership challenge look like in the digital age of the future. I explored it from five different angles – work, skills, technology, space and life. I then examined how a leader could deal with the challenges in each area.

Work – Let us explore as to how the world of work will change over time. The first and foremost distinction will be that the line between work and home will blur. People may work from anywhere and will not be comfortable with drawing distinct lines between home and work. They would prefer flexible working hours. An employee’s needs, wants and expectations from work will change. One cannot motivate employees by money alone. Purpose and values may be be more important than money. Life long employment will be history.

Skills – The skills acquired by a person will determine their value, not age or experience. Employees will tend to own their career and skills as they would like to be at the steering wheel at all times, not their boss or others. Automation and AI may make skills redundant sooner than expected. The only differentiator human beings may add to skills will be emotions.

Technology – Leaders have to continually master technology to have the cutting edge with their teams. Artificial intelligence and technology will replace routine jobs. Human beings need to add value with resonating emotions. Collaboration and co creation will become a way of life. Social good will overtake organisational selfishness.

Space – The cabins in offices will disappear. Work environment will embrace open architecture. Hierarchy will be a thing of the past and cross functional teams will drive organisations. Organisation boundaries will merge. People may work in multiple organisations and are committed more to their profession than to any organisation. Dress codes will be determined by individuals and not organisations. Formals will give way to casuals as comfort rather than impressionistic dressing will be the norm.

Life – Family as an institution may disintegrate or even get redefined. Society will evolve as a network of individuals rather than families and communities. Relationships get established through social media than real ones. Marriage as an institution may break down or change. This may impact relationships within and between families and communities. Stress will manifest in complex ways. As human interactions minimise, social interactions will increase with the use of technology. This means while technological connectedness may increase due to social media, bots, AI etc, human relatedness may decrease due to limited face to face interactions. Values have become relative as compared to absolute in the past. It is no longer black and white. It is grey most of the time and subject to interpretation.

So, if we look at leadership from these angles – work, skills, technology, space and life, we will understand that leadership in a digital age has varied challenges. They need to be dealt with differently from the past. Let us examine each challenge and on how a leader in the digital age can deal with it.

Work – The leader has to to be flexible and an adaptive networker to bring out the best in his people. Without laying rigid guidelines, the leader has to create the space to bring out the best in his team.

Skills – A leader has to be a challenger of their team and at the same time provide continual opportunities to learn and grow. If we can ensure that neither we nor our team members are complacent, we could be a winner.

Technology – A proactive adopter of technology and the latest trends will make a leader deal with the challenges of the digital age in an adaptive manner.

Space – A leader who behaves like a hierarchy less space creator will thrive in the emerging digital age. Our ability to cement collaborative teams to work together will be the differentiator for the future.

Life – A leader of the future has to evolve as an emotional anchor. The break down of family and marriage as institutions in the future will create more stress to the individuals and less coping mechanisms to deal with same. This means that leaders in the future have to be emotional anchors and fill the vacuum created by the emerging social trends. Leaders have to deal with relative value systems as compared to absolute of the past. This means what was considered inappropriate in the past may be considered normal or appropriate in the future. This means the role of listening to one’s conscience will be more important than ever before.

Let us learn to lead in the digital age of the future.

S Ramesh Shankar

8th July 2018

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