What does it mean to be a great leader in the digital age?

There can be little doubt that, with the challenges brought by the increasing impact of disruptive technologies, shifting competitive landscapes and consumer behaviours, organizational leadership is operating in a challenging, and rapidly evolving context.

CEOs who were surveyed in IBM’s series of global C-suite studies, for example, have placed technology as the single most important external force shaping their organizations for the last four years in a row, more significant even than regulatory concerns, globalisation, macro-economic and market factors.

The 2015 global C-suite study noted that so-called ‘horizontal innovation’, or companies that use digital technologies to expand rapidly into adjacent or entirely new markets, was now a major threat.

Such industry convergence is seen to be the primary driver of the next wave of innovation. Where once CEOs could see the competition coming and could respond accordingly, today it is often invisible until it’s too late.

With this as context, Econsultancy set out to understand how leadership itself is changing in response to a digitally empowered world.

Our new Digital Leadership research and report reveals a worrying technology literacy gap amongst the most senior staff in our companies.

While the vast majority of our survey respondents believed that it was ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’ for leaders to be technology literate in the modern business environment, far fewer of them actually believed that the level of literacy amongst their own leadership was strong.

 how tech literate are your leaders? 

The expectation is not that leaders necessarily need to have specific operational knowledge of technologies and systems, but rather that they at least should have a good sense of the potential of new technologies, and the opportunities brought by their effective integration and application.

When we asked research participants to identify the key characteristics of effective leadership in the digital age, it was notable how more traditional leadership qualities (visionary, commercial focus) were joined by those that focused more on operational orientation (technology literacy, customer-centricity, data-driven, adaptable and agile), and even also by ‘softer’ and altogether more human qualities (such as openness and curiousity).

This echoes feedback on the growing importance of softer skills from our Skills of the Modern Marketer research.

So, might the best digital leaders benefit from a unique combination of skills and characteristics that bring together more traditional qualities that have long been thought to describe great leaders, but combine these with the kind of customer-centric, data-driven, technology-literate aspects that truly fit the digitally-empowered world?

In his article on pi-shaped people, Econsultancy CEO Ashley Friedlein described these as the marketers:

with a broad base of knowledge in all areas, but capabilities in both left brain and right brain disciplines. They are both analytical and data-driven, yet understand brands, storytelling and experiential marketing.

Consistent feedback from our research showed how effective leaders in the digital age are able to combine a natural aptitude for understanding and drawing out insightful value from data, technology and algorithms, while combining this with an intuitive sense of the importance of more creatively driven disciplines such as customer experience, design, storytelling and inspiring visions.

Might this be the vision for the new Pi-shaped leader?

For a more detailed look at best practice in digital leadership, download the new report.