Article: Leadership Excellence for the Digital Age


Leadership Excellence for the Digital Age

What does it take to attain/sustain leadership excellence in the digital age to ensure that promising possibilities are converted into gainful?
Leadership Excellence for the Digital Age

Leadership at the helm of progressive organizations is becoming increasingly difficult with the lure of efficiency-driven technology, powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), significantly impacting the corporate landscape. Innovation is being seen as the key to relevance and survival in the Digital age, rather than, as an afterthought for assuring business competitiveness.  The rules for running successful enterprises are being rewritten as old theories and established practices consistently fail to justify the rise of ambitious startups in dismantling the titans of industry. Consequently, corporate concerns are frantically searching for the elixir to attain/sustain leadership excellence for the digital age to ensure that promising possibilities are converted into gainful opportunities in a timely and effective manner.  Following are 10 tips for moving purposefully and robustly in the respective direction:

1. Being a visionary isn’t enough; be a futurist

During the early part of the 21st Century, Nokia was a dominant player in the cellular market.  It led in innovation and introduced many iconic models, including, the legendary Nokia 3310.  However, the senior management couldn’t foresee the untapped potential of a platform-based hand-held device that could derail its status of being the world-leader in cellular technology.  This was amply exploited by Apple through the introduction of the iPhone.  Nokia tried to mount a challenge by introducing more models that catered to the varying tastes of current and potential customers; however, it kept ignoring the broader ecosystem of digital communication that invalidated its rebounding initiatives.

Eventually, Nokia was sold to Microsoft by the then CEO, Stephen Elop, who uttered the insightful remarks through tears ‘we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost’, at the press conference for announcing the respective acquisition. The pace of digital revolution is unsettling, unforgiving and unrelenting. Nokia achieved the vision of being the global leader, however, it couldn’t capitalize on the future of digital communication due to its excessive inward focus, instead, of embracing the vast openness of an evolving ecosystem that opened wider horizons for its competitors to tickle the imagination of customers in freeing themselves from the shackles of loyalty and reorient their lives around the new normal.  Being a futurist is not an option for visionary leaders in the digital age; rather, it is an indispensable skill that needs to be actively and prominently cultivated throughout the pipeline of succession planning initiatives.

2. Invest in ‘open’ and ‘flexible’ talent management systems that allow ‘breathing space’ for ‘free thinkers’ and ‘trendsetters’

Conventional talent management systems are designed to be directional, disciplinary and dedicated.  

However, the digital age mandates timely and astute innovation which requires the magnanimity of enterprising experimentation that beckons ‘trendsetters’ and ‘free-thinkers’ who are allowed to stretch the boundaries of ‘acceptable norms’ in converting possibilities into opportunities.

These professionals generally have the capability of staying committed through nagging struggles, possess the steady focus during sleepless nights of self-reflection and frequently display uncompromising valor in neutralizing the fear of failure in order to achieve desired goals.

Some progressive organizations have developed separate functional entities to accommodate such initiatives that are not aligned with the customary running of the organization. This will become more prevalent as AI-enabled machines/devices/life-forms become a part of the workforce by graduating to an ‘electronic team member’ role from a primarily ‘mechanistic assistant’ in current applications and incentivize their humans counterparts to engage in more cerebral roles in order to justify/maintain their relevance.

3. Be welcoming of the increasingly ‘sensitized’ and ‘connected’ world

The world has been steadily shrinking in terms of rapid communication, knowledge-transfer and wide connectivity.  Every internet-savvy person has a stake in the global context due to the extensive diffusion that has brought relevance to isolated/marginalized communities and opened organizations to the glaring spotlight of corporate accountability from multiple perspectives. One of the Big Three Airlines in the USA, i.e., United Airlines, learnt this the hard way when a musician’s guitar was broken on one of its flights during baggage handling and he was consistently refused compensation despite repeated requests. Consequently, he channeled his talents into making an engaging video ‘United Breaks Guitars’ which garnered a huge following on YouTube and forced United Airlines to issue an apology with an offer of compensation while suffering a significant blow to its corporate reputation, stock price and customer goodwill.

Concerns for environment and social imbalances have added extra dimensions for competitive organizations to proactively engage in remedial measures before irreparable harm to increasingly fragile reputations. The term ‘activist’ has shifted from its rudimentary contemplation as an act of defiance pertaining to societal upheaval to a more apt description of an ‘engaged’ stakeholder.  Therefore, organizations with an eye on thriving in the future are well-advised to heed the adage ‘someone is always watching’ and proactively embrace the consequences of their actions in a more accommodating and responsible manner.

4. Don’t undermine innovation with technology by marginalizing the ‘human factor’

Technology is highly addictive due to the promise of problem-solving and comfort, especially, when aligned with customer needs and expectations. However, within the corporate realm, a key mistake committed in the exuberance of adopting and adapting to technology is the neglect of innovation or simply tying it with technology for meaning the same thing. This marginalizes the ‘human factor’ that defines the soul of an organization and forms the essential vanguard of its competitiveness.

Quite often, organizations go through binge-spending on promising technologies with the hope of improving operations, however, without proper due-diligence, this generally results in regrettable situations, e.g., expensive investments that are not needed, multiple technologies that do not integrate with each other, depreciation of workforce’s inherent ingenuity, plausibility of cheaper solutions, etc.

‘Innovation’ is a cardinal ‘humanistic’ concept that refers to astute application of human ingenuity, whereas, ‘Technology’ is a consequential ‘mechanistic’ tool that enables the efficient accomplishment of targeted tasks/assignments/responsibilities.

Keeping the ‘human factor’ in prime position while charting the course of a prosperous future in the digital age ensures internal harmonization in congruence with the optimal technological solutions.

5. Ingrain ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ as a core part of the organizational culture and instill Confidence Boosting Measures (CBMs) to drive fear out of the workplace

Consistently progressive, suitably paced and reliably profitable growth in the digital age is increasingly dependent upon the richness of the Diversity & Inclusion factor in the corporate domain.  Different perspectives that open and widen horizons into achieving formidable competitiveness in appealing and catering to customer needs and expectations from diverse backgrounds are crucially dependent upon the liberation of the workplace from regressive fear-driven practices. Critical attention to employee well-being is essential to ensuring that Diversity & Inclusion initiatives don’t fade away under the deceptive lights of glamorous employer branding initiatives which are big on touting diversity, but, failing miserably on Inclusion.

The foundations of inclusiveness at the workplace are primarily strengthened by the ‘informal’ social engagements and ‘voluntary’ bonding between diverse employees, rather than, as a consequence of the refinement of the ‘formal’ talent management strategies and measures. For example, see the ‘natural’ composition of the lunch tables in the office cafeterias and/or the coalescing of ‘affinity’ groupings in the corporate leisure rooms to realize the level of redeeming success or the enormity of inherent challenges.

A receptive organizational culture buoyed by ‘core values’ and complemented by astute talent management strategies can go a long way in benefiting from the ‘simmering’ talent, often unnoticed in organizations, for achieving/sustaining a competitive edge in countless ways while ensuring a reign of unabated positivity in the workplace that incentivizes a sense of belonging and engagement for those yearning to unleash their unexplored potential.

6. Make sure that succession planning and management is impartial and transparent

Demands and criteria for leadership are changing for the digital age, especially, with the presence of a multi-generational and diverse workforce which is increasingly faced with the prospect of becoming redundant/marginalized in the face of technology powered by AI. Established leadership theories and vibrant management practices of the past are being relentlessly tested in an era where profitability is no longer a guarantee of sustainability and huge conglomerates are constantly looking over their shoulders with nervous anticipation of becoming irrelevant from ambitious startups.

Additionally, an increasingly significant requirement for tomorrow’s leaders is the penchant for service that goes beyond the professional demands of the assigned function and opens horizons for permeation of altruistic thought and meaningful contributions to the wider goal of ensuring a harmonious existence within the global community for mitigating/eliminating the chance of a misstep that might jeopardize the organization’s future in an increasingly ‘sensitized’ and ‘connected’ world.  Consequently, talent pipelines and succession processes have to be squeaky clean and void of any controversies to dissuade disheartened/disillusioned potential successors from seeking their career advancement elsewhere.  

The future of progressive organizations in the digital age, more than ever, hinges upon corporate leaders assuming the mantle of enlightened statesmanship, rather than, clinging to the prevalent status-quo of regressive politicking.

7. Cultivate High-Commitment Employees (HICOs), rather than, High-Potential Employees (HIPOs)

The HIPO approach, extrinsically-driven assessment, is a more refined form of the dreaded ‘Normal Distribution Curve (Bell Curve)’, conveniently used to weed out the lowest performers within the talent pipelines, that has been frequently attributed to eroding the morale of diligent employees and incentivizing the ‘cannibalization’ of ‘Peer Careers’ to secure sanctuaries within the ‘safer’ zones of the respective talent mapping technique.

Additionally, the ‘privileged care’ associated with maintaining a healthy number of HIPOs is profoundly taxing on the organizational culture and is widely seen as a latent way to reward ‘Conformist’ behaviors which hinder the ‘Dissentient’ nature required to boost innovation for staying relevant in a Digital world.  It is more prudent to cultivate HICOs, intrinsically-driven employees, who are inherently engaged and very hard to poach by opportunistic competitors.  This leads to a more ‘wholesome’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘risk-mitigated’ application of a truly effective talent management system for strengthening the functional foundations of a progressive organization against the vagaries of Digital disruptions.

8. Inculcate mentorship as a mandatory element of senior management’s performance appraisal

The significance of having a good mentor cannot be overstated for blossoming talent as it lays the solid groundwork needed for keeping ‘potential successors’ focused and galvanized towards maximizing their value-addition for the organization while carving an admirable career for themselves.  However, few organizations invest in formally engaging such relationships and are normally inclined to providing counseling services through the HR function. This results in the profound loss of a golden opportunity to create strong bonds between the various hierarchical levels which inevitably manifests in a number of undesirable ways, e.g., communication gaps, failure of psychological contracts, high attrition rates, poor employer brand, lower morale, unsatisfactory working conditions, stagnated career progression, underutilization of talent, etc.

Therefore, it is imperative that senior management should be mobilized for the mentor-mentee network and the level of success in such initiatives gauged as an essential element of their performance appraisal.  This will strengthen the overall talent management system in multiple ways, e.g., robust talent pipelines; less need for rigorous training & development, boost to employee engagement, voluntary ambassadors for attracting additional talent, minimal defections to ravenous competitors, increased level of readiness to embrace leadership challenges, etc.

9. Convert ‘Aspirational’ employee engagement into ‘Inspirational’ employee engagement

Most progressive organizations tend to start ‘requiring’ employee engagement, rather than, expecting it as a natural offshoot of an enterprising culture based upon robust values. This has the downside of becoming a job specification which brings ‘shrewd actors’ into play who are enticed by the incentive-driven external motivation of gaining associated rewards and recognition.

Consequently, the ‘glamorization’ of employee engagement often eclipses the ‘voluntary initiatives’ of the ‘truly engaged’ employees who are driven by the primary intrinsic motivation of ‘doing good’ as an affirmation of their exemplary professionalism.

Therefore, an inspiration-based approach is generally a more enduring option than an aspiration-based approach for assuring ‘Sustainable Employee Engagement’ due to a more refined and durable way of leveraging the synergies between luminous foresight, astute decisiveness, coalescing culture, invigorating work environment, unambiguous empowerment, seamless compliance, timely execution, impartial self-reflection and the undeterred resilience to ensure effective remedial measures.

10. Befriend ‘Failures’ for learning and embrace ‘Successes’ with caution

Organizations that have the humility and astuteness to learn well from their missteps are the ones with the foresight for maximizing the probability of success.  A few years back, the trusted business model of software licensing was stagnating at Microsoft as Apple and Amazon made significant strides in cloud computing and mobile devices to embrace the emerging trends of the Digital age.  However, Microsoft was able to self-reflect upon the changes that were needed to become relevant again and took the necessary steps, including, bringing in a new CEO with an extensive background in cloud computing. Now, it is again at the vanguard of current and emerging technologies, including, strategic investments in AI-enabled products and services.

Profound insights can also be gained from the meteoric ascents and spiraling descents of industry titans who customarily pose as the narcissistic prophets of success, yet, become embroiled in nagging controversies and are eventually unceremoniously relegated to corporate wilderness, e.g., Enron, WorldCom, Swissair, Bear Stearns, etc.  The prudent practice of a timely, meticulous and honest introspective organizational review backed by robust corrective/preventive actions has firmly evolved into a survival imperative in a digital world that does not pay heed to tradition, sheds conventional thinking, seeks seamless gratification, pledges loyalty to technological innovation and punishes complacency with extinction.

Food for Thought

The aforementioned tips have been provided to open an insightful window into the verdant expanse of innovative thinking and astute application that refreshingly caters to the two critical competencies needed for organizations/professionals to stay relevant in the ubiquitous Digital future, i.e.:

1. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

(refers to effectively embracing foreseeable changes/unanticipated scenarios/disruptive chaos)

2. Being uncomfortable with being comfortable

(refers to effectively overcoming intoxicating complacency from dominant market positions/stakeholder contentment/goal attainment)

Take a moment to step back from the daily grind and check your comfort level.  Are you ready? 


1 Mirza, Murad Salman. ‘From HIPOs to HICOs - A new evolved approach’. 2016. /article/leadership-development/from-hipos-to-hicos-a-new-evolved-approach-13384

2 — ‘Engagement uninterrupted – Achieving sustainable employee engagement’. 2016. /article/performance-management/engagement-uninterrupted-achieving-sustainable-employee-engagement-13253

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Topics: Leadership, C-Suite

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