What makes a successful digital leader

It is not just about technology and software, but above all about a new kind of management.

What makes a successful digital leader

“The key to digital transformation lies in an appropriate leadership culture,” says Christiane Brandes-Visbeck. She is one of the pioneers of digital leadership in Germany and co-authored “Netzwerk schlägt Hierarchie” (Network Beats Hierarchy). Digital transformation is a long and complex process that can encounter numerous forms of resistance at management level and among employees. It is not enough to address future topics and new trends and concepts alone. It is not just about technology and software. It is not purely an IT issue. And it is not enough to outsource all questions about it to a Chief Digital Officer.

What digital leadership means

“In uncertain times, when change dynamics are unusually high and the future is no longer predictable, courageous and intelligent leadership is called for,” says Christiane Brandes-Visbeck. She sees digital leadership as a style of management “that should transport companies and our society securely into the new age”.

She refers to a broad definition of the term, coined by B.J. Avolio, S. Kahai and G.E. Dodge in their paper “E-leadership: Implications for theory, research, and practice”. Here, they describe it as a process of social influence that is set in motion by modern information technologies. The aim is therefore to bring about change: in the attitudes, perceptions, emotions, thinking, behavior and performance of individuals, groups or organizations.

5 suggestions for practical application

What does that mean in practice? According to Christiane Brandes-Visbeck, even a digital leader uses characteristics and methods that can be found in a classic manager toolbox. What else is required is shown by a study by recruitment consultancy Russel Reynolds. According to this, modern managers have five characteristics above all: they are disruptive, innovative, courageous in leadership, highly socially competent and determined.

  1. Disruption in leadership, according to Christiane Brandes-Visbeck, means putting the tried and tested back to the test. Every production process, every job description and every form of cooperation should be rethought. It also means not having every small decision approved by top management level, but taking responsibility, examining innovative ideas and implementing them quickly.
  2. To be innovative, company leaders should look to the future and ask the right questions, even if they do not yet know the answer as decision-makers. Characteristics such as imagination, lateral thinking and asking unusual questions are taboo for employees in many strictly structured companies. In the age of digital transformation, we now learn that entrepreneurial innovation is only possible where people no longer have to comply with the standards of society, the family or a corporate culture.
  3. Be courageous in leadership, flexible and show attitude. Keyword: “transformational leadership style”. According to Wikipedia: “Transformational managers attempt to motivate their employees intrinsically, for example by conveying attractive visions, communicating the common path to achieving goals, acting as role models and supporting the individual development of employees.” It is also about setting an example of what you expect from your own employees, says Brandes-Visbeck. It is important to no longer regard leadership as (only) a position, but as a role.
  4. Being highly socially competent means, among other things, being open to new forms of cooperation. According to a Bitkom study, working from home is going to increase in importance. Nevertheless, two thirds of all German companies do not allow work outside the office and other alternative forms of work. Socially competent also means allowing differences in human existence – keyword “diversity”. And a socially competent digital leader knows that each generation lives by and responds to its own communication cultures and values.
  5. Be determined: Many change projects in companies go wrong because managers are inconsistent. “Digital leaders, however, are determined to achieve their self-imposed goals and make their visions tangible. They develop clear strategies and flexible tactics to overcome obstacles. They support their teams and motivate them to do the same,” says Christiane Brandes-Visbeck.


The bottom line

In Germany, the digital transformation is still sometimes regarded as a temporary trend. However, it is an all-encompassing change that is already visible today and will continue. As described here, companies need more than just lip service. This change affects long-established structures and ways of thinking in companies. Digital leadership is needed to master these changes and to use them to a company’s own advantage.