Effective leadership isn’t ageless or immutable. Periodically, new technologies overturn established modes and sweep aside executives who don’t adapt.
For most of the 20th century, after transformative technologies made it possible to measure the minutiae of human work, leaders concentrated on maximizing productivity and efficiency, many taking a command-and-control approach. But this autocratic style failed disastrously when upstart Japanese companies used newer technologies — focused on quality — to enter Western markets. In the mid-1980s, unwilling to make the organizational and leadership changes required by this shift in competition, American companies went bankrupt at rates not seen since the Great Depression. Those that survived augmented their long-standing functional silos with teams that enabled cross-functional collaboration, while their leaders learned to empower employees to make decisions.
Today, business is being transformed again — this time by digital technologies. They render some elite skills obsolete and widely distribute others; make work more thought-driven than muscle-powered; shed light on unpredictable customer needs that create disproportionate value; reveal information regardless of the merits of concealment; and affect — and are affected by — environmental conditions near and far. They also connect companies and employees by distributing work across geography and over time.
Current and aspiring leaders must respond to this new wave of change in five key ways.
1. Truly champion inclusivity. Senior executives are (still) mostly white Western men — and they are the ones who identify and develop their companies’ future leaders. Thus, their demographic profile, behaviors, and mindsets are self-reinforcing. People who don’t conform — including women, LGBTQ employees, racial minorities, and those from different cultures and nations — get fewer opportunities to rise to senior leadership positions.
It’s an anachronistic model. Digital technologies distribute mission-critical work to all kinds of employees from other organizations and distant cultures. They have also accelerated a widespread shift from physical work to knowledge work. This means if talented people feel estranged from their leaders, they can withhold intellectual contributions and even walk away.
I’ve surveyed 700 midtier to senior executives, mainly from multinational organizations, and conducted formal and informal interviews with top leaders and high-potential employees at select U.S., European, and Asian companies. My research suggests that leaders across the world are failing to motivate people who don’t resemble them, ascribe to their traditions, or work in similar settings. To do better, leaders must shed their myopic leadership standards.
You can begin immediately by reassessing your language of leadership. What your culture considers essential for leaders others may consider irrelevant or even undesirable. For example, the quintessentially male Anglo-Saxon attribute of “decisiveness” discounts the deliberative decision-making many others practice. All executives everywhere must be effective, but must they really be decisive?
2. Quickly acquire broad knowledge. For much of the last century, executives gradually broadened their narrow domains of expertise while climbing the many rungs to the top. Quality technologies reduced the number of rungs, but cross-functional teams created alternate opportunities to learn. Whether advancement was vertical or latticed, extraordinarily difficult, usually serendipitous, challenges — “crucibles of leadership” — turned some executives into leaders.1
By upskilling people and distributing work, digital technologies create many minicrucibles, compressing this development time. My research revealed that executives with far less experience than their predecessors now make consequential decisions. The impact of these decisions can traverse the globe instantaneously, not in days or weeks.
The best-trained armies have learned that narrow expertise doesn’t help in such conditions, since, as retired top U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal opined, a “problem has a different solution on different days.”2 Instead, as one top executive told me, leaders must “navigate the in-between spaces that experts avoid.” Another added that to prevail in high-stakes minicrucibles, where “noise and extraneous factors [are] far more important than manageable change,” they must learn rapidly.
Traditional education and jobs, still driven by the logic of prior technological eras, don’t prepare aspiring leaders to do all that. So actively seek ideas that extend or even challenge your worldviews. Volunteer for ill-defined projects with big constraints, indistinct deliverables, and unclear personal incentives. Doing so may expand your options in future unfamiliar situations.
3. Collaborate more intensively. Traditionally, two relatively independent considerations drove collaboration within and between enterprises. Executives first identified external or internal business partners that possessed capabilities to support a defined strategy. They then used clear goals, charters, processes, work cultures, and in-person interactions to drive team-level collaboration between the businesses or units.
Digital technologies have scrambled that logic: Team-level collaborations now create new intellectual property that can open up unforeseen strategic options. The new challenge, as one CXO interviewee noted, is finding “diamond(s) in the rough. The technology is good enough, not necessarily great, but their people have the will to continue to fully polish it.” In short, effective collaboration has become hard, ongoing work.
Complicating matters, collaborating groups are often globally distributed. Relative strangers must overcome asynchronous communications, divergent cultures, conflicting work processes, and other obstacles, usually without the beneficial impact of regular in-person contact. Indeed, most of the executives in my survey belong to teams that aren’t colocated, with members who work in other business units, or at other companies, or abroad. And they don’t collaborate well under those conditions.
Executives must therefore embrace the tough challenge of building and continually bolstering collaborators’ trust in one another — and in their companies’ leadership teams. Ask yourself why strangers should trust you and your vision. What do you do before, at the start of, and during collaborative efforts to earn their trust? What do your digital bread-crumb trails convey about you before digital technologies connect you directly with others? Being trustworthy has a much bigger impact on collaborative success than making repeated, imprecise commitments to seeking win-win solutions.
4. Push beyond productivity and nurture creativity. In pre-digital times, leaders focused largely on increasing revenues, reducing costs, and boosting return on investment. Those things still matter, but here, too, digital technologies are enabling change.
Creative thinking is increasingly important; satisfying unpredicted market needs generates disproportionate value. A 2010 IBM survey suggested that CEOs understood this: They ranked creativity as the top requirement for leaders.3 Indeed, “good work” now takes the form of new ideas, concepts, and models.
However, my survey revealed that executives pay inconsistent attention to the increased thought content of their work. They also don’t adequately foster creativity and learning in others.
Perhaps their lived reality drives them: Research shows creative people are still less likely to become leaders.4 And although people espouse creativity, favoring practicality reduces the ability to recognize creative ideas.5
If you don’t begin leading for creativity, sooner or later you will rightfully be blamed for that. And you can’t lead for creativity by seeking uniformity. So stop doing that unless it’s indisputably essential. Voice your own opinions last so others are encouraged to voice theirs. Finally, because modern creativity requires multiple inputs, create a culture of asking for and giving help freely.6
5. Become a guardian of an awesome power. Businesses are experiencing an epidemic of technology-driven crises.7 While each crisis may have an idiosyncratic cause, considering them collectively reveals that most are self-inflicted and hence preventable. While some of our best and brightest executives undoubtedly act malignantly, most are decent people who make two types of errors.
First, with a keen focus on disruption by competitors, they often ignore the digitally driven changes in work and organization described here. Second, they make one or more of the following flawed assumptions: that digital technologies always do good, don’t err, serve only interests defined by their creators, give humans power over environments, and should replace human actions when possible. When making either error, leaders instigate or exacerbate crises by pursuing unachievable goals and failing to put essential protections in place.
Technophobes don’t understand that no human in history has ever stopped any transformative technology. Technophiles chase every new shiny bauble (over half of my survey respondents said their companies primarily focused on technology when pursuing innovation). Neither approach will be fruitful.
After embracing the formidable power of digital technologies, leaders must objectively assess them by answering three key questions: Is it feasible? Is it organizationally valuable? Is it humanly and socially usable? Experts who can speak to this last question may be hard to find. Turn to near-future science fiction instead; it often presents realistic possibilities that may help.
Companies are already starting to reframe their leadership standards. But doing this work will take time, because the new imperatives are not only individually important but also mutually reinforcing. Collaboration enables organizations to benefit from inclusivity and breadth of expertise. All three enhance creativity, while guardianship helps shape viable goals.
Happily, aspiring leaders needn’t sit on their hands while they wait for the leadership zeitgeist to change. Adopting these imperatives today can help prepare you for tomorrow.
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This content was originally published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By MIT Sloan Management Review