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Much has been written about becoming a digital organization. Less ink has been spilled on what it takes to become a digital leader. As it turns out, there’s a growing mismatch between how organizations are currently led and how they should be led.

This was the overall conclusion from our recent study with MIT Sloan Management Review to explore how the changing nature of competition, work and society is influencing the future of leadership. We surveyed 4,394 global leaders from over 120 countries, conducted 27 executive interviews, and facilitated focus group exchanges with next-gen emerging leaders worldwide. The findings serve as a warning for today’s leaders — as well as an invitation to reimagine leadership for the new economy.

Highlights of the study findings that concerned us include:

  • Just 12% of respondents strongly agree their organization’s leader has the right mindset to lead them forward.
  • Only 40% agree their organization is building a robust leadership pipeline to tackle the demands of the digital economy.
  • Just 48% feel their organization is prepared to compete in digitally-driven markets and economies.
  • Less than 10% strongly believe their organization’s leader has the right skills to thrive in the digital economy.
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Reimagining Leadership in the Digital Age

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On the bright side, we identified a number of leadership teams that were paying attention to new ways of working and leading. By analyzing these responses, with the MIT Sloan School we’ve developed a framework for understanding leadership behaviors that work, as well as four mindsets that constitute the new hallmarks of leadership.

Not as prepared as they think

The majority of executives we surveyed are hampered by inertia and a reluctance to rigorously rethink their past leadership practices. We’ve identified three fundamental reasons why leaders aren’t as ready as they think to lead in the digital economy:

1    A deficiency in digital savviness.

Fully 71% of our respondents believe they are personally prepared to lead in the digital economy. Yet this same group scores significantly lower when asked whether they possess specific digital skills, such as using analytics for decision-making or advocating for the use of advanced technology in the organization.

2    Blind spots that prevent them from seeing a clear path forward.

Many leaders are not as self-aware as they need to be, particularly in four key areas: strategic (failing to grasp the dramatic changes taking place in their industry), cultural (seeing change as an affront to cherished norms), human capital (outdated hiring and promotion practices) and personal (surrounding themselves with people who reinforce old-world thinking).

3   Embedded tensions that threaten trust and create cultural inertia.

Many interviewed leaders expressed concern that they might lose employee trust due to trade-offs that emerge directly from the new world of work. For example, while speed is essential in the digital economy, an accelerated pace can make it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships. Failure to confront these dilemmas can result in lethargy, cynicism and mistrust.

Leadership behaviors: heeding the 3 E’s

Trailblazing leaders artfully balance leadership approaches that appeal to a new generation of employees, while honoring time-tested behaviors and attributes. From our survey results and executive interviews, we grouped current leadership behaviors into three categories: eroding, emerging and enduring.

  • Eroding behaviors” are those that were once viewed as valuable but are now considered counterproductive. These include reliance on hierarchy for influence, command-and-control decision-making and rigid strategic planning.
  • Emerging behaviors” are those that are becoming more critical to success. These include a data-driven outlook, tech savvy, openness to varied input, humility, the ability to empower teams, flexibility and a wiliness to prioritize sustainability efforts.
  • Enduring behaviors” are time-tested leadership attributes that are still viewed as critical. Most prevalent is the ability to build trust among teams, named by 64% of respondents as a top leadership attribute. Others include strong ethics, authenticity, honesty and integrity.

The challenge is to cultivate emerging behaviors, combine them with the enduring ones, and proactively shed those behaviors whose value is eroding. Doing so is integral to crafting a leadership framework that is right for the times.

Four mindsets that enable the leadership needed today

Of course, few — if any — leaders are competent across the full set of emerging and enduring attributes. That’s why the primary leadership challenge isn’t simply to develop a set of competencies but to embrace a new mindset that anchors, informs and advances desired behaviors. By changing their attitudes and beliefs about what leadership looks and feels like, leaders can produce behavior change that lasts over time.

We identified four distinct yet interrelated mindsets that together constitute the new hallmarks of leadership in the digital economy: producers, investors, connectors, and explorers. The narrative thread connecting these mindsets is that they intentionally align efforts to bring out the best in colleagues and collaborators while measurably enhancing outcomes for customers, communities, our planet and shareholders.

Figure 1

Producer mindset: The producer mindset combines a focus on customers with a focus on analytics, digital savviness, execution and outcomes. Producers use analytics to accelerate innovation to address shifts in customer preferences and improve customer and user experiences.

  • Investor mindset: Investors pursue a higher purpose than shareholder returns. They are dedicated to sustainable growth, and they care about the communities in which they operate. They care about the welfare of their employees and invest in safe working conditions. They pay close attention to why they exist as enterprises and how their actions impact the planet, communities, employees’ and customers’ welfare.
  • Connector mindset: In an increasingly connected world, mastery of collaborative relationships, partnerships and networks is a new currency that drives organizational effectiveness. Connectors regularly bring together diverse stakeholders to achieve a shared purpose.
  • Explorer mindset: Explorers are curious and creative, and they operate well in ambiguous situations. They engage in continuous experimentation, and learn by listening to many, and varied, voices. Explorers tolerate and even encourage failure, reverse mentoring, and a deep curiosity about how the forces of digitization are reshaping the competitive environment.

Becoming a trailblazer

Here are a few recommendations on ways to become a trailblazer and cultivate trailblazers in your organization:

  • Articulate a powerful leadership narrative that courageously lays out what you believe it will take to lead in the digital economy.
  • Build communities of leaders by empowering employees at all levels.
  • Align your talent, leadership and business strategies, and hire and promote people who embrace the skills and mindsets you value the most.
  • Don’t just embrace inclusion and diversity; demand it. The research is clear that diverse teams perform better, so stop talking about diversity and make it happen.

Creating the conditions for success starts with setting the tone and developing the mindsets that constitute the foundation of the new leadership playbook. Successful leaders are the ones who don’t just see what the future might bring; they create it. 

For the full report, including anecdotes and interview outtakes, please see “The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age” (registration required). For additional insights, please visit the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work.