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The Art of Leadership in a Digital Era

Used effectively, digital technologies can make us better leaders.

Digital technologies have changed how we do virtually everything, and the change has been rapid. What appeared innovative when I published Rewired in 2011 is now ubiquitous. In a digital era, leaders do face new challenges, but leveraging digital technologies to be more creative, collaborative, and effective can also transform one's ability to lead with impact.

The Digital Era's New Normal

There is no way to easily summarize the extent to which digital technologies have restructured work and leadership since the mid-1990s. What’s obvious is that 25 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine today’s new normal.

  • The 24/7 workplace: It is now assumed that everyone is on 24/7. However, we all too often fail to take time out to consider the personal and professional costs. For example, being on 24/7 increases the likelihood that a leader might be asked to make a decision while distracted (e.g., responding to a work-related message while attending a child’s music concert) or overtired (e.g., late at night when you should be sleeping). If being on all the time risks compromises leaders’ decision-making capacity, there is a good reason to weigh the costs of this practice.
  • Distributed teams: Along with the rise of the 24/7 workplace, over the past 25 years, distributed teams have become increasingly common. In many respects, distributed teams are a positive development. We can now build teams with the best talent around the world. But leading distributed teams also opens up new challenges. On distributed teams, people often fail to get to know each other. As a result, building trust on a distributed team generally takes a lot more work than it does on a team that works together in a shared physical location on a daily basis. For leaders, this means being even more intentional about building trust and maintaining it over time.
  • Social media: Leaders are now expected to maintain some social media presence. At its best, social media is an effective way for leaders to reach out to stakeholders they may otherwise never reach. It can also be a great way to respond to a crisis in a timely manner (e.g., to get one’s side of a story out before any damage is done to one’s personal or organizational brand). At its worst, social media can be a liability--for example, when someone tweets on behalf of a leader in a manner that is simply off-brand.
  • Big data: Every leader knows that decision making requires information. In the past, finding the information needed to make decisions was often a challenge itself. Today, leaders often face the opposite problem: an excess of data. With data more plentiful than ever before, leaders need to be able to stay focused, ask clear and concise questions, and only work with datasets that are relevant to the decision in question.

Build Bandwidth to Embrace the Possibilities of Leading in a Digital Era

Although leaders face challenges, liabilities, and constraints they didn’t face in the past, digital technologies have also opened up possibilities to lead more effectively.

To make the most of these possibilities, it is important to ensure we have the bandwidth needed to thrive in a digital era. After all, the pace of business is faster than ever before. As a result, unexpected things can and do arise. Leaders need bandwidth to respond quickly and with clarity to anything that comes their way. When leaders are overwired and overtired, this ability is compromised. When leaders have the bandwidth, they can amplify their impact.

  • Global growth is within everyone’s reach: Expanding internationally is still a challenge, but it is certainly much easier than it was 25 years ago. We now live and work in a global economy where it is increasingly just as possible to scale one’s business growth globally as locally. For leaders, this means being open to thinking about business growth in an expanded framework.
  • Leaders can build stronger and more diverse relationships: The c suite isn’t as isolated as it once was. Leaders can now more easily build relationships with diverse stakeholders and more easily sustain these relationships across geographic boundaries and over time. Leaders who invest in using today’s digital tools to know, connect, and expand with individuals beyond their immediate network have a lot to gain.
  • World talent is at your door: In the past, your team was generally sourced locally or at least nationally. It is increasingly possible for leaders to find the very best team members in the world. Done right, this opportunity can drive innovation and deepen one’s bench strength.
  • A better work-life balance is possible: We often read about how digital technologies are eroding our work-life balance, and the research is compelling. Research suggests that when mishandled, the 24/7 workplace can take a toll on our wellbeing. For example, a 2017 American Psychology Association study found that employed Americans who check their work email outside work hours are significantly more likely to report above-average levels of stress. On the flip side, there is also reason to conclude that we can leverage digital technologies to achieve a better work-life balance. One obvious advantage is the ability to work remotely and carve out more time for family and friends. Used smartly, digital technologies can also help leaders automate routine tasks that once drained their attention and time.

At their best, today’s digital technologies can be embraced to make leaders more agile and impactful both on the job and in life. But in a digital era, leadership challenges are profoundly different than they were in the past. This naturally means that to lead effectively, we need to develop new best practices, embrace new models, and even set revised benchmarks to measure our impact and success.

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