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World Economic Forum: Reimagining Leadership in the Digital Age

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

At a a panel discussion on “Reimagining Leadership in the Digital Age,” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday, panelists and attendees discussed their vision for what tomorrow's leadership looks like.

Leadership in the digital age will look almost nothing like leadership as we have come to know and love (or loathe) it. Rigid, top-down, bottom-line-driven hierarchies are on the way out. More horizontal, collaborative, purpose-driven teamwork is becoming the norm. And the people who lead the most agile, responsive companies in the digital economy will not only need a passion for technology, they’ll also need a healthy dose of humility.

These were the themes that dominated a panel discussion on “Reimagining Leadership in the Digital Age,” at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday. Moderated by Reuters Editor-at-Large Alex Threlfall, the session used as its launching pad a recent report by the MIT Sloan School of Management and Cognizant entitled, The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age. The first sentence of the report is a bold rebuke to those at the top of the current corporate food chain: “Executives around the world are out of touch with what it will take to win, and to lead, in the digital economy.”

The report surveyed 4,394 global leaders about the future of leadership, and uncovered some startling data. For example:

  • Only 12% of those surveyed strongly agreed that their leaders had the right mindset to lead them forward;
  • Only 48% agreed that their organizations are prepared to compete in digitally driven markets and economies;
  • Less than 10% thought their leaders had the right skills to lead in the digital economy.

Panelist Ben Pring, Director of the Center for Future Work for Cognizant and a co-author of the report, explained that alarm bells should be ringing for “leaders who are out of touch” and “uncomfortable with technology.” Those who are clinging to older styles of leadership and don’t have a passion for technology — as well as technology’s role in the transformation of the workplace — are soon going to be obsolete, he warned. “Leaders don’t necessarily need to be tech-savvy themselves,” he explained, “but they do need to be turned on by technology, not turned off by it. If you’re turned off, you can’t manage this new generation.”

The emerging model of leadership in what Pring calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” is marked by an emphasis on increased transparency, authenticity, collaboration, purpose, truth, and empathy. Leaders in the digital age need to be more responsive to what their workers need and want, the panelists agreed, because technology has shifted the balance of power.

“You can’t fake it,” warned MIT/Sloan’s Douglas Ready. “If you have a strategic blank spot about where your organization is going,” digital workers will know it.

The New Inverted Pyramid

Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup, agreed. “In a world with Glassdoor [the social media site], everyone knows if you’re purpose-driven or not,” she said. Leaders in the digital age need to recognize that the pyramidal, knowledge-based power structure that dominated the 20th century is being inverted by technology. And when younger workers know more about technology than the people who are leading them, those leaders need to learn how to be humble, how to listen, and to ask for help when they need it, Frankiewicz added. “We have to have CEOs who can admit what they don’t know, and they need to be authentic and honest about what they don’t know.”

Moderator Alex Threlfall then read a quote by Dave McKay, president of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), who is known for his innovative leadership style: “We want leaders that are willing to fail publicly and take some personal risk.”

Threlfall then wondered if asking leaders to fail publicly was realistic, given that this is pretty much the last thing most leaders want to do. Frankiewicz responded that “in digital leadership, failure is going to be required. Failure isn’t failure anymore; failure is just learning. And that’s how we have to redirect our mindset.”

To understand how leadership is going to evolve in the digital age, MIT/Sloan’s Ready referred to his report’s categorization of “Eroding, Emerging, and Enduring” behaviors that will guide the digital mindset. Eroding behaviors are top-down hierarchies driven by power and ambition, whereas Emerging behaviors are things like identifying and inspiring talent and “giving power away,” while Enduring behaviors are time-honored ideas about “ethics, trust, and integrity.” Ready also referenced the report’s categorization of digital-age workers as Investors, Explorers, Connectors, Producers, all of whom play different but equally important roles in the organization of the future.

“High tech and high touch are in demand,” said ManpowerGroup’s Frankiewicz. “But inasmuch as digital savviness is at the forefront, these softer skills around collaboration, curiosity, and working together are now critical for the future of leadership.”

Overall, what emerged from the discussion was a vision for a new kind of leader who is focused on empowering talent, inspiring workers, creating a co-operative, purpose-driven workplace, and who values partnerships and people as much as profit. In a world still largely controlled by “old-style” power, however, these workforce transformations won’t always be easy, noted Cognizant’s Pring.

“The subtext of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is wanting to have the first industrial evolution,” Pring explained. “What we’re really trying to do here is leverage this moment of profound disruption, but not have all the consequences we had in all the other industrial revolutions.”

Holding up his phone, Pring stated that “the means of production are now in everyone’s hands.” There is change in the zeitgeist, he added later, during the Q&A. “We can’t go on the way we have been. It’s not sustainable.”

Andrew Green of Thomson Reuters contributed to this report from Davos, Switzerland.

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