Digital Leadership is not digital

Currently I am preparing a key note for a Business Event in Barcelona. The headline of the event is “digital transformation” – what else. I decided to talk about Leadership in that context  – why not. And as writing is sometimes easier than thinking, I am using this post to develop some thoughts together with you.. (as I imagine myself in a conversation with people while writing and this is what is so helpful)

I asked myself some questions:

  • What reality are organizations facing right now? What is the impact on Leadership?
  • Is Leadership fundamentally transforming or just adjusting?
  • What is it, that Leadership is really really about, now?
  • If Leadership is transforming, should we think about a fundamentally new way to think leadership? Is the term “Leadership” still valid, at all, as it comes from a different time (or not)?
  • Who needs a Leader? How can Leadership add some real value?
  • Can we substitute Leaders with an algorithm or a smart operational system?
  • How come there is so much talking about Leadership and so few great Leaders?
  • Do we need Leaders, or rather Leadership Teams? The world is so complex and volatile and quick, how should any person be able to lead at all?
  • So what are the key responsibilities that can be only performed by a human Leader?

The more I think about it, the less I know. So I am using a widely used tool: I will formulate my ideas as theses.

#1 – Leadership is more important than ever AND it is fundamentally different

There was a time when it was obvious for organizations where to go and what to do. Linear growth informed by the past and the present. Just to more of the same, just a little better, cheaper and faster.

Today the situation looks like this: we actually have no idea what happened, what is happening and what is going to happen. So we either continue with what we are doing and hope for the best. Or we take active new choices in an unpredictable world. The Digital Age is the age of creation, imagination and invention rather than continuation.  The future is no place that is already existing and that will get to, the future is being created, imagined and invented out of the present moment. This is what Leadership is about right now.

#2 – Leadership provides orientation by creating and speaking a new future 

Reality is carved out of an unknown future by words. “Words create Worlds”, they are the most powerful tool Leaders have. With their description of a future world they are creating reality for the rest of the organizations. With their powerful speaking they are creating a new future, that their organization can live towards. Their speaking becomes reality when it is consistent, conscious and authentic. When people start to believe and enact this new reality. This is how words become worlds.

#3 Leadership fosters freedom and creativity 

If you put more pressure on already stressed and overwhelmed people: what do you expect as a result, really?

Creativity is the reason why we are here after all. The role of leadership is to provide for enough freedom to spark our given and innate creativity. Without trust no freedom, without freedom no creativity. Without integrity no trust. Here we come back to very basic human needs: feeling safe, feeling connected, having freedom to develop.

#4 Leadership provides emotional connection

Digital connection is the new normal. We can not be not digital connected in different ways and forms. To open up and to develop a new practice of digital connection is indispensable. We can ask our kids, interns to coach us, there is no way out. The best way is to embrace the new possibilities. But there is another aspect to connection: the emotional connection. And there is one thing that becomes clearer and clearer: while we are more and more connected on an informational, we are terribly disconnected on an emotional level. Research shows us, that there is a negative correlation between the number of Facebook friends and “real friends” (what is real anyway..).

Feeling isolated creates anxiety and a tendency to play small and hold back for people. What we need right now is people, who feel safe to fully contribute. Leaders create conditions for emotional connection. There are many ways to do that, but for me the most important one is to be present, physically and mentally and emotionally for each other and to help others to the same: by listening, asking, sharing.

The more digital the world becomes the more spaces we need to feel, smell and listen each other. After all we are humans and trust is created only, when we know each others intentions, strengths, personalities.

#5 – Leadership is a team effort

“The next buddha is the community” is also valid for Leaders. While we were used to rely on singular and shiny Leaders, the world has become too complex for individuals. This is a new game we are entering now, we need strong and aligned Leadership Teams, creating all the conditions I talked about for themselves.

#6 Leading means: “We go first”

With whatever we want to create. Leadership is about Being Your Word and this is what Leading really is about. People hear you talking and they see you acting. Leaders are not telling others what to do, they inspire them by who they are and how they act. Everyone can be a leader.


Austria Connect / Julia Culen / June 2017 / Leading in the digital age



6 thoughts on “Digital Leadership is not digital

  1. You gave an excellent and heartwarming confirmation of my feelings on what is going wrong in large corporate organizations.
    So many people are busy pretending to knowing what is going on. based on (biased) data from analysts who refer to data that is coming from the same busy people. Digitzation operates on real and “big” data analytics which breaks the circle of self fulfilling prophecies in traditional businesses. Most Managers cannot handle this loss of control….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great topics Julia, one thing that concerns me these days is the question “if everybody is leading, who is Managing” . While leadership is important for setting direction, inspiring and motivating, it’s Managing that gets the details worked out and ensures that everyone arrives at the right place at the right time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Andy, I am not worried about Managing.. I see people being busy to manage tasks but too few people willing and able to take true Leadership.


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