what it means to be a digital leader

What it means to be a Digital Leader: Crossing the leadership fault lines

What it means to be a Digital Leader: Crossing the leadership fault lines

what it means to be a digital leader

Leadership is a concept that is arguable as old as time. However, despite being one of the most important components, first of survival and then of growth, the concept of leadership has been very slow in its evolution through the millennia. As we forge ahead into the Digital Age, the rate at which leadership has been evolving is worrying.


Unlike the eras before it, the Digital Age demands a complete overhaul of leadership – from its structure, to definition, to the skills required to succeed. In an article for PeopleMatters, Rajiv Jayaraman and Subramanian Kalpathi talk about a developing a leadership lattice instead of a leadership funnel – collaborative approach to leadership that is built on the twin virtues of empowerment and accountability. This shift is a necessary one because the demands of the Digital Age are starkly different from its predecessors.


The advent of technology and digital disruption is creating an extremely dynamic business environment, known as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) which requires organizations to be agile and nimble. At the helm of this transformation is a leader, who conceptualizes and drives the strategies and models that will help the organization succeed in the digital age.

So, what does a Digital Leader need to be and do to help the organization win in the digital age? UNLEARN, RELEARN and LEARN ANEW.

Digital Leadership = Lattice of Empowerment and Accountability

The leadership style and structure of the industrial age lends limited support to the Digital Leader. Unfortunately, the leadership lessons taught thus far to seasoned leaders and young leaders alike has been on the tenets of the industrial age. Therefore, Digital Leaders need to unlearn all the things they have been taught about leadership thus far. The key lessons to be learnt are:

  1. The mantra of the Digital Leader is to lead without authority, that is, through the power of persuasion and influence.
  2. Digital leaders must be the architects of a networked organization that continuously collaborates and has real dialogues across the leadership lattice.
  3. Information Democracy. Share rather than hoard ideas, information, strategies and practices in favor of agile operation.
  4. Reimagine business models and strategies constantly to ensure relevance in the Digital Age.

Digital Leaders must face a new reality

The lattice of leadership that is demanded by the Digital Age means that strong digital leadership isn’t restricted to pockets of people within in the organization. Therefore, there are a few crucial truths and principles that Digital Leaders need to reconcile:

  1. Strong digital capabilities are a priority for the entire organization should that organization wish to survive in the digital age. It is also important that capability development is continuous and agile.
  2. Change must be part of the organization’s DNA. The primary reason that digital is a force to be reckoned with is the belief that if something can be disrupted, it will be. Those unwilling to accept, and drive change will only act as bottlenecks that subsequently bring the organization down.
  3. Business strategy must constantly evolve. The shelf-life of a business strategy is less than 6 months and quickly shortening. Planning and hypothesizing behind closed doors will lend organizations a hand in nothing other than extinction.

While the entire organization is responsible for these changes, it is the digital leaders who must drive this transformation, should they wish to remain relevant and thriving. Every leader may not become a digital leader, but those who do not cease to remain leaders as well, as they no longer have anything to offer the organization or its people.

The traits, capabilities and mindsets of a Digital Leader

While researching for his book, ‘Clearing the Digital BLUR’, KNOLSKAPE Founder & CEO Rajiv Jayaraman interviewed dozens of industry movers and shakers and thought leaders about their understanding of digital and its implication on various aspects of business. Among his questions ranked the point on ‘What it means to be a Leader in the Digital Age’. The unanimous views of these leaders follow:

1. Coaching mindset

A digital leader is more a coach than a boss or manager, someone who understands their team’s personalities, intentions, aspirations, fears, strengths and weaknesses, leveraging these various components to help the team perform better. After all, a digital leader is only as good as the team he leads.

2. Fail-fast leader

A digital leader believes in innovating, experimenting and taking risks. No one knows how the future will turn out to be, and there are no definitive responses. Organizations that will continue to survive and grow exponentially in the digital age are the ones whose leaders are not afraid to fail, and fail fast, cutting their losses and moving on to bigger and better things.

3. Inclusive culture

A digital leader is one who is intentional and inclusive, encouraging their teams to share their thoughts and ideas, take risks themselves, and be part of the decision-making and problem-solving process without the fear of going wrong. Trust is the hallmark of a digital leader because s/he is aware that the battle cannot be won alone.

4. Outside-in Orientation

A digital leader knows that the organization is less likely to succeed if leaders are not incredibly customer centric, market focused, aware of trends, talking to possible partners, and stitching together coalitions. An external orientation is key to heading towards your destination and at a faster pace than the competitors.

5. Agility

Agility is the most important virtue of a digital leader as it encompasses everything they do from changing business processes and models, to innovating and taking risks, to scaling up their teams and themselves. Agility also begins with leaders – only by improving the agility with which they learn and operate can they actively influence agility in their teams.

It is crucial for digital leaders to remember that they are the driving force of exponential growth and prosperity in the digital age, as change begins with them. For an organization to prosper, its leaders must amass the traits, capabilities and mindsets necessary to dive this transformation. Therefore, it is in the best interest of both organizations and their leaders survival that leaders proactively work towards preparing for the digital age.


swati kamath round logo[su_label]About the Author[/su_label]

[su_note note_color=”#C2BFB4″ radius=”4″]Swati is an experienced product marketing manager and behavioral facilitator at KNOLSKAPE with a demonstrated history of communicating value and influencing decision making. Skilled in Marketing, Communication, Behavioral Facilitation, Customer Centricity and Management[/su_note]

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