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What I've discovered about leading in a digital world

Our world is changing fast. There's a digital tidal wave sweeping through organisations and it's driving massive change and chaos. This is also bringing massive ambiguity and confusion of how best to lead and drive for success.

My leadership work is an attempt to decode what GREAT leadership looks like going forward and teach new ways of leading in today's digital world.

In this article, I share my thoughts on what I have discovered to be some of the big picture principles of leadership going forward. I'll get into the detail of what leaders actually do on a day to day basis in my next article. For now, let's explore the big picture.

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What is the role of a leader and the purpose of leadership?

The role of a leader

It's really easy to confuse our digital world with a complete focus on technology. Our digital world is about people, mindset and behaviour utilising technology and creating new ways of working.

For me the purpose of leadership is to awaken possibility in people to deliver extraordinary results. Let me repeat what I believe the purpose of leadership is as it's the foundation for success:

The purpose of leadership is to awaken possibility in people to deliver extraordinary results.

Whilst the role of leadership is to create a high-performance environment where success is inevitable, operating effectively in a digital world is really about people.

What that means is that leadership is about “being.”

It is about role modelling and creating a high performance team. It is about understanding people and building trust. It is about building confidence in people so they can deliver amazing results.

I see in so many over managed/under led organisations where the role of the manager seems to be to destroy confidence, to destroy people and to ensure they’re disengaged and unable to achieve great results.

I think we need to flip that around and start to focus our leaders on the individuals and the teams that are there to deliver the results we need. For me that's about coaching performance.

It’s all about developing people, helping them to learn, helping them to grow and realise that they can achieve so much more than they think is possible. I would like to propose that the key purpose of a leader is to make sure they challenge people, they work with people and they awaken the possibility in their people and help them to achieve extraordinary results.

What are the Key Leadership PrinciplesFor Today's Digital World?

I'm sure you'll agree we are in the midst of a Leadership Revolution.

And any decent revolution that creates a movement needs a manifesto and a manifesto needs a set of simple guiding principles.

Here are the three core leadership principles I've discovered that are vital for your leadership success going forward:

The core leadership principles are boldness, simplicity and speed.

Exploring Boldness

Exploring Boldness

During the financial crisis in 2008 no issue has aroused more passion and energy than financial institution bailouts. I’m sure years of the wrong government policies added to the disaster but why did the banks behave the way they did up to the crisis? My personal view on this is that the banks were set up on a command and control fear based culture with low trust. I believe they had created a culture where people were too scared to say, “No we shouldn’t be doing this, it is too risky.” I think greed and fear took over.

No one was bold enough to say no, let’s not do this.

One of the key aspects of being a great leader is being of ethical service, to serve others. Boldness is the willingness to take risks in the service of what matters, such as your organisational purpose, goals and values. It means being courageous, confronting, speaking out and acting in the face of fear and danger.

We need leaders who can operate with boldness. Being bold and courageous is not about being ‘gung ho.’ For me it’s around being on purpose, honest, value led, being open, being able to speak your mind, being able to say what’s in your thoughts. I know that when I was in the military I would rather have someone say that they couldn’t do something, or that they were ill or injured rather than to think they are being courageous in saying, yes, yes I can do that and then let me down in the field when the bullets are flying. I definitely wouldn’t want that to happen. For me being courageous is about people going out there being bold and being comfortable with vulnerability to do what is right.

Being bold of course is also about thinking big. It is about creating a good personal risk profile and making sure you can actually go for it as you test things out. You are comfortable failing fast if needed.

So thinking big is a great principle I would propose for leaders in this New World. We now work in environments where things haven’t been done before so I think that the old way universities teach people through case studies is redundant now. I believe it is around looking into the future, being bold, creating new ways of operating and really having the comfortable mindset of “OK I am going to go for it; if it fails I can kill risk quickly and develop new ways of doing things.” Being bold is a key principle.

Exploring Simplicity

Exploring Simplicity

I was working with an organisation that used a big consultancy firm to develop their new Leadership Model. Theoretically and intellectually it was great and stacked up to the criteria and must have cost the tax payers a fortune! In my view it was too over engineered and complicated, they got so wrapped up in showing people how clever they were by creating such a complex model they forgot it had to be implemented by busy people.

We need to keep things simple, not complicate or overburden our people. I see so many complicated strategies and plans that are so clever but can’t be operationalised because they are so complex. I am a big fan of strategy on a page, plans on a page, projects on a page - you get the idea. You really have to understand what you are doing to put a complex situation on one page and remember the purpose of plans, to guide action! I’ve found the planning process is more important than the plan.

In a complex world it makes sense to be able to deal with complexity and make things simple. I stagger at the complexity organisations build into their ways of working. How over complex is your business?

Think about your business, think about the function or team that you lead and ask yourself what is it I can do to make it simple. How can I get rid of the millions of KPIs and the confusion that we create with the bureaucracy, the form filling, the report making, the overly complex process - all the things that make the job really challenging.

Let’s get rid of those and keep it simple. What is it we actually need to do to make it successful? I have a belief that people tend not to remember more than three or four things anyway so what is it that I want them to focus on that really drives the performance and results.

Yet many companies I work with say, “Well, you don’t understand; our business is really complicated.” My belief is that it is not complex, they just make it complicated. I think this comes from this whole mindset of, “If I am working in a complex organisation then I am really intelligent which means I am more successful.” All we are doing really is boosting our egos when we just need to make the business simple.

Exploring Speed


Exploring Speed

I was working with a large retailer who was going through a major change programme. The organisation was funded by venture capitalists, the pressure was on. Sadly they could not make the change quick enough and the investors got bullish, the leadership team were replaced!

So, let’s make things simple: we’ve got Boldness, we’ve got Simplicity and the third thing in today’s world is we have got to operate with Pace. We have got to deliver quickly, we’ve got to execute around priorities, and we’ve got to make sure that we know how to take a strategy and then take the strategy and turn it into a plan, and then operationalise it really quickly. We need to create a sense of urgency.

One client I work with has achieved this by creating a culture of perpetual crisis. It certainly keeps leaders on their toes and constantly innovating.

We also need to be comfortable with this whole concept of speeding up by slowing down – we know when to go fast, we know when to slow down we know when to review, reflect and learn. We know that there is a big difference between a plan and the planning process. We know how to engage people, we know how to get teams on board quickly and we can execute with immense speed. This is a crucial element in today’s world.

I am amazed by this whole concept of 10 year plans, 5 year plans and the annual planning process. I believe we need to start to operate in smaller time frames whilst still keeping an eye on the future and what is coming. We need to speed up our delivery by taking an evolving approach and operating with greater pace. Let’s start operating in 90 day planning cycles and keeping an eye on the future visions.

To summarise, we have seen that the role of a leader is to create a high performance environment where success is inevitable.

We’ve talked about the purpose of leadership being the need to awaken possibility in people to deliver extraordinary results and we have described the three principles of Boldness, Simplicity and Speed.

So what is it that a leader does on a day to day basis?

I call these The 7 LEADERSHIP TRUTHS FOR OUR DIGITAL WORLD and I’ll share these in my next article …

Graham Wilson, Leader Wizard, author of Leadership Laid Bare! and founder of the award winning Successfactory™

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Graham Wilsonwww.grahamwilson.com


Leadership Laid Bare! is available from amazon.co.uk

About the author

Graham Wilson

Graham Wilson

I enjoy and specialise in teaching leadership skills, how to create winning strategies, how to build high performance cultures. Outcomes and results are the most important measures for me!