The demise of the ‘Hero Leader’: Six truths about leadership in the digital age

Agata Nowakowska gives us six ways that leadership is changing – or needs to change – in 2020.

The digital economy has radically changed the way many of us now work – including organisational leaders. The top-down, ‘hero’ approach of leadership that worked in the industrial age is no longer fit for purpose and digital leaders need different methodologies. Today, fostering collaboration and encouraging innovation are now core competencies of effective leaders.

Relying on traditional leadership structures, processes and behaviours in modern digital-native businesses can lead to a whole range of issues, from lost revenue and higher employee turnover, to decreased customer satisfaction. This new work paradigm requires an updated model of leadership based on six new truths:

  • Leaders work in agile teams

Teams have become the new normal in corporate workplace culture. Legacy hierarchy has been replaced by agile, cross-functional teams that assemble around a project or initiative that may last weeks, months, or even years.

Instead of static groups of direct reports who merely execute plans handed down from above, today’s leaders manage diverse, international teams, which must be empowered to operate with flexibility, autonomy and with a huge emphasis on renewal and innovation.

Leading these mission-focused teams depends on a new set of competencies built around leading through influence and motivation, rather than authoritarian dogma.

  • ‘Connect and collaborate’ is the new ‘command and control’

Digital transformation is having a huge impact across the global economy. The emergence of cross functional disciplines such as DevOps and Customer Success are increasingly built into today’s organisational structures. Digital leadership, therefore, must cultivate cross-functional collaboration to keep pace with change.

The new focus of leadership is to connect and collaborate, not command and control. In doing so, absolute authority has given way to the inclusive team efforts required to tackle complex problems. As a result, leaders must embrace the dynamic relationship networks that have replaced the familiar corporate pyramid.

The bottom line is: The ‘hero’ leader of yesteryear directed; whereas today’s digital leader coaches.

  • Modern leaders focus on ‘managed empowerment’

A central leadership tenet in the digital age is the application of ‘managed empowerment’. In practice, instead of setting out a predetermined direction for the team, the leader guides team context and interjects only when necessary. This also depends on the leader’s ability to foster an environment of shared purpose and trust, where team members feel confident to share ideas and take risks.

Conversely, those who cling to an outdated micromanagement school of leadership risk alienating talent, will limit innovation, and ultimately lose ground to more agile competitors.

  • Innovation, not execution, is the new benchmark for leadership success

The leader’s mission has evolved from simply overseeing execution to empowering innovation. Technology has disrupted and ultimately upended traditional business models, and everywhere you look, disruptors are building market share.

At the same time, consumer expectations are rising and companies the world over are under constant pressure to release new products and services at an ever-accelerating pace. Indeed, business survival now often hinges on an ability to build constant innovation into the business model.

  • Training digital leaders requires a new mindset

It’s no exaggeration to say that traditional leadership strengths are increasingly incompatible with modern team culture. It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that many organisations are still teaching leaders how to command a room and delegate tasks to execute their plans. This reveals a disconnect in what businesses need from leaders and how they are developing them to meet those needs.

Developing effective leaders today necessitates a change in mindset. Teaching skills alone will not suffice. Skills enable actions, while mindsets provide context for those actions. A master-level chess player needs to know more than how to move the pieces on the board; they must understand nuance, exercising foresight and strategy.

Skillsets are one-dimensional; mindsets are contextual and leaders’ mindsets must inform their actions and allow them to act and react in ways that drive innovation.

  • Leadership is democratic

The widespread shift to team-based organisations – many of which are ad hoc, project-based and cross-functional – means leaders are needed at all levels. As organisations shift from siloed hierarchies to flatter, agile networks, individual team members are increasingly stepping forward to guide and influence.

Instead of waiting for direction from above, these ‘informal’ leaders shape the progress of teams they – effectively – already lead. In practical terms, they act as leaders despite lacking formal leadership titles or recognition.

Looking at the fundamentals of the changing world of work, the ‘hero leader’ is rapidly becoming a workplace anachronism. In an ever-changing competitive landscape that demands exponential growth, innovation has become the leader’s chief objective.

Finding the next big idea – and then the next one after that – requires diverse thinking. Businesses with this leadership approach can deliver better financial performance, whereas directive, top-down, ‘hero’ leadership stifle creativity and impedes innovation.

There is no going back, and the nature of leadership must continue to evolve to meet the needs of team-based working life.


About the author

Agata Nowakowska is AVP at Skillsoft




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