Leadership Qualities for the Digital Age?

23/06/2016 11:39 | Updated 23 June 2016

The annual exam season is once again in full swing. Millions of young people must soon make choices that will determine their opportunities in a predominantly digital future. We know we're going to need more people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills but we don't need everyone to be an engineer or software developer. What other qualities will we need to cultivate in our young people so they can succeed in this new world?

Millions of us are already embracing a more digital way of life. Paying for a parking space, checking the news, organising our holiday photos in an album, monitoring our health and fitness, doing the weekly household shop -- we're doing it from our tablet, wristband or smartphone, at any time of day or night. This coming together of the physical, digital, and biological worlds has been called the fourth industrial revolution. It has the potential to change everything -- education, healthcare, finance, business, public services, local communities, nations, global interaction -- and it requires a new style of leadership.

Whether we're in the early years of a career or already in a position of responsibility, here's my starter list of leadership qualities for this digital society:

1. The conviction that human beings matter most. Because technology is simply there to make life easier and better for people. That is its purpose. Like insurance company RSA, which has brought all its 19,000 global employees together 'under one digital roof' where they can collaborate more easily and be more productive.

2. An open mind about what is possible and a readiness to embrace digital. The IT department no longer dictates what technology to use and how. Good ideas can come from anyone, anywhere. 'Pay as you go' cloud services are making it easier for any individual team or entrepreneurial department to run with a digital idea.

3. The ability to see things through customers' eyes/walk a mile in their shoes. In the digital age, if users (and that includes employees) don't like what you offer, they won't use it. So a customer perspective is critical. Etihad Airways is using digital to create a superior experience for its guests, by answering calls faster and directing them to an agent with the right language and skills to help.

4. A collaborative mindset that is ready to share ideas, information and skills. Change is coming fast and there's no time (or money) for everyone to reinvent the wheel. This is especially true in the public sector, where going digital has huge potential to help deliver better services at a lower cost. There is little sense in every healthcare provider having its own patient monitoring system. Better to co-create something that many can use. An example of this approach is the Digital Health Enterprise Zone in Bradford, England. It's a community of health and social care professionals, university researchers, large and small businesses who are collaborating on digital innovations that can be used to improve the health of people around the world.

5. Technology is no longer exclusively the job of the IT function and we all have a duty to be technologically literate. You don't need to understand how the internal combustion engine works to be a good driver. But you do have to understand the rules of the road and appreciate the impact of your driving behaviour on other people and the environment. Similarly, you don't need to understand electronics to be tech literate but you do need to understand the implications of big data, cyber security and the 'digital possible'. It is no longer acceptable for business leaders to outsource that knowledge and awareness to the IT team. We all need to network more and be exposed to new ideas.

6. A spirit of adventure because no-one knows where this might lead; there is no best practice, no blueprint to follow. We need to go out, to explore, to imagine and to think big. And because we're all going to be learning, we're going to make mistakes. Digital age leaders build from the wrongs to make things right.

The digital economy will put an end to traditional 'command and control' leadership and make way for a more relaxed, democratic and collaborative style. In the meantime, those of us already in senior roles should start to prepare the ground and make it clear what sort of digital leadership qualities we value, encourage them in others and, not least, find them in ourselves.