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ATD Blog

A New Age Demands New Leadership

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A new way of working has emerged from the post-Industrial Age into a digital one—and with it the need for new leadership.

Technology has created new jobs that were once the realm of science fiction, and a work paradigm where organizations break down siloes, redistribute decision making, and flatten the corporate hierarchy into connected networks is becoming the norm. Just as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, automation, and data science have evolved from imagination to reality, the business world has become smarter, faster, more agile, and more democratic. Advances in communication have connected global teams, collapsed distances, and require effective global and virtual collaboration. And the leader of the past is rapidly becoming obsolete.

Yet most corporate leadership development programs haven’t responded. According to research by the Brandon Hall Group, only 10 percent of organizations have aligned leadership development programs with future business needs and the competencies required in the Digital Age. Catalyzing productivity and innovation in this brave new world means creating leaders requires a brave new approach.

Six Truths of Leadership in the Digital Age

1. Leaders now guide Agile teams and ad hoc tribes, not direct reports who simply execute their plans.

This is the age of the team. The traditional corporate hierarchy has given way to fluid, cross-functional teams that assemble around a specific project or initiative. Rather than static groups of direct reports charged with executing plans handed down from above, leaders today manage diverse, global teams empowered to operate with agility and autonomy and an emphasis on innovation. Leading these teams requires new competencies and the ability to lead through influence and motivation rather than authoritarian fiat.

2. Good leaders connect and collaborate.

The modern leader rejects visions of absolute authority and promotes the kind of collaborative effort needed to tackle complex problems. They embrace the fluid networks of relationships that have replaced structured corporate pyramids. Yesterday’s leader dictated; today’s leader influences and motivates. That hero leader directed; this digital leader coaches.

3. Modern leaders practice “managed empowerment.”


Today’s leader must practice “managed empowerment.” Leadership today requires an environment of shared purpose and trust where employees feel comfortable proffering ideas and taking risks. Encouraging collaboration and initiative, leaders empower teams to drive autonomous decision making. In a recent survey, 70 percent of respondents said that decision making is often distributed across functions and job roles. Progress no longer hinges on a leader’s approval of every action. Such micromanaging alienates talent, impedes innovation, and cedes ground to more agile competitors.

4. A leader’s success is measured by innovation, not execution.

The leader’s mission is empowering innovation. Technology has disrupted traditional business models. In a 2017 Fortune survey, 73 percent of responding CEOs cited the rapid pace of technological change as their greatest challenge. Companies feel pressure to release new products and services at an ever-accelerating pace, and business survival hinges on innovation and agility. Leaders must learn to recognize trends, identify opportunities, and embrace promising ideas.

5. Training digital leaders requires new mindsets, not just skill sets.

The traditional leader’s cultivated strengths are incompatible with the modern team. While we’re still teaching leaders how to command a room and delegate tasks, many traditional leadership skills no longer fit the contemporary workplace. There is a mismatch between what businesses need from leaders and how we are developing leaders to meet those needs. Developing effective leaders today necessitates no less than a change in mindset. Skills enable actions while mindsets provide context for those actions.

6. Leadership is democratizing.

Work is done in teams, many of which are ad hoc, project-based, and cross-functional. It’s imperative to develop leaders at all levels of an organization. This isn’t a process that starts from scratch; it’s already happening organically. Informal leaders shape the progress of teams they already lead, acting as leaders despite lacking formal titles or designation. In our survey, 91 percent of respondents agreed that these informal leaders can be more effective than formal leaders. The nature of agile teams gives rise to a new model of leadership: the incognito leader.


Where Can We Take Action?

Develop your talent on its way to the top. Don’t wait until employees become managers to develop them as leaders. Building your bench is crucial to strategic succession planning, and developing employees is critical to retaining them. It’s far easier to mold behaviors and mindsets than it is to change them. Remember, high-potential employees are often already acting as informal leaders. Give them the tools to be effective now so they can step into formal leadership titles later.

Teach coaching. Most managers don’t intuitively know how to develop their people. Coaching allows managers to help their employees reach their goals by establishing rapport and identifying performance gaps. It’s becoming increasingly crucial for retaining top talent, creating a culture of innovation and growth, and realizing the value of a workforce.

Coaching is a highly effective leadership skill yet was the lowest-rated skill in our survey. Only 17 percent of respondents rated their leaders as “high” or “very high” in coaching skills. Adding coaching into a leadership program measurably improves outcomes. A McKinsey study found that successful leadership development programs were five to six times as likely to involve senior leaders acting as mentors and coaches.

Instill critical mindsets, especially a growth and learning mindset. Leaders seeking to learn new skills first need to embrace a growth mindset. Competing today demands leaders who take risks, learn from mistakes, adapt and iterate to achieve success, know they don’t have all the answers, and constantly grow.

The Hero Leader Has Exited the Stage

The Digital Age mandates a new model of leadership. In an ever-changing competitive landscape that demands exponential growth, innovation has become the leader’s chief objective. Finding the next big idea then doing it again and again requires diversity of thought. The data bears this out: Diverse thinking results in better financial performance, providing a competitive advantage also known as the “diversity bonus.”

About the Author

Heide Abelli is an accomplished executive with extensive general management experience. She has held senior leadership positions at leading educational technology and training providers such as Skillsoft and Harvard Business Publishing, where she developed award-winning, groundbreaking corporate training solutions. She is a seasoned veteran of product development, innovation, and product management in the fields of corporate training and ed tech.

Abelli is a globally recognized subject matter expert in the areas of leadership, management, general business skills, the unique skills required for success in the digital economy, employee L&D, and effective corporate training practices. She is a frequent contributor to Forbes and has been featured as an author and SME in dozens of business publications around the world, including Forbes, Fortune, The Economist, Business Insider and CEO Today. Abelli regularly speaks at industry conferences in the field of corporate training and is invited as a SME for webcasts and podcasts in leadership, the future of corporate learning, and in-demand job skills.

Abelli is currently a teaching faculty member of the Boston College Carroll School of Management, an independent consultant in the ed tech sector, and the cofounder of an entrepreneurial venture in the training space called SageX. Finally, Abelli is a National Diversity Council 2019 Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Tech award recipient and a 2019 Stevie Women in Business award winner. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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Great article and very thought provoking. Thank you!
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A change in mindset is critical. Very insightful read. Thanks for sharing!
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Good insight on changing leadership methods and mentality.
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