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Collaboration and Empowerment: New Styles of Leadership for a Digital Age

07/04/2014 11:53 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 10:59 BST

In this year's PwC Annual Global CEO Survey, we asked over 1,300 CEOs in 68 countries about the global megatrends that are shaping the new business environment. From the risks of climate change and resource scarcity, to the profound changes wrought by urbanisation and demographic shifts, to the transference of economic power from mature to emerging markets. But despite the huge adjustments these trends will entail, there was another dwarfed that them all: over 80% of respondents said that technological advances would transform their business over the next three years.

At PwC, we've been working with companies across all sectors, to help them meet the challenges of a digital world and find new ways to deliver profitable growth. As a result, we're convinced that leaders will need to change as much as the business models and strategies they develop. Like their organisations, CEOs will need to be able to thrive on complexity, generate new ideas, and change direction quickly if they have to. In other words, they'll have to learn to love disruption, because that's already becoming the new normal.

Empowerment is an important concept. A lot of CEOs talk about this, but far fewer carry it through fully. And that's hardly surprising, since empowering your people inevitably means relinquishing a degree of control yourself. But in the digital age companies will need flexible 'networked' or horizontal business structures, not the rigid hierarchical ones that have been have been a prominent feature of the past.

Empowerment is a pre-requisite for a truly innovative organisation - an organisation in which anyone can be an innovator, and which thinks and acts like a start-up, even if it's a global multi-national. That means developing an entrepreneurial culture, and an entrepreneurial style of leadership to inspire it.

Another important concept is collaboration - a way of working which will be crucial both for the business, and its CEO. This applies to encouraging 'horizontality' (in Sir Martin Sorrell's words) across the vertical silos of an organisation, and working with people outside who are very different in perspectives, experiences and skills. Successful leaders seek out and embrace 'difference' at the heart of so-called 'innovation ecosystems' - offering the potential for profitable growth.

An empowered, collaborative business requires rather different qualities from its leader - more trust and less micro-managing, more humility and less insistence on status, more coaching and less control, and far more sharing of both influence and information, because in a digital age 'knowledge is power' no longer applies. As this suggests, what underpins all this is the confidence to let go, not just of power, but of anything else that's a drag on your business (whether strategy, brand, division, or approach), even if it does have your name on it.

Letting go of the past is all the more important if your company is a mature business, where the baggage of the past can impede necessary change. All businesses go through a four-stage cycle of growth, and their leaders need very different operational skills as the organisation moves between these phases, from the Innovator who galvanises the start-up, to the Scaler who grows it to the next stage; from the Refresher who's able to reinvigorate a mature operation, to the Saviour who rescues the distressed through radical cost-cutting and restructuring. Few CEOs are equally good across the whole cycle, though it takes both courage and humility to be able to admit that. To paraphrase a famous saying, the best leaders are those who have the self-knowledge to know where their own strengths lie, and the wisdom to accept when they need to move on.