The new skills needed by leaders to be effective in a digital age and how to develop them

Patricia Hind thinks leaders need to make a few adjustments to thrive in the world’s new normal. 

Everything we thought we knew about how to develop our people for business success is now open to question. We are in the midst of the largest upheaval in the organisational world since WW2 and it is looking increasingly unlikely that we will be able to go back to ‘business as usual’ any time soon. 

Yet, enterprise, commerce and charitable work will prevail and survive and will need to be led in whatever is the new form of normal, whenever that might emerge.

Leaders will need to be able to decode this new normal, to develop new strategies to navigate it, and in particular to motivate and engage what is likely to be a nervous and dispirited workforce.

Current leadership development provision is already frequently criticised for its lack of relevance to the challenges faced by real companies and for its overly academic focus. It seems unlikely that it will fare better when those challenges are completely unchartered and shifting by the day.

The importance of a leader’s values, or ethical standards is heightened in a digital world where leaders are frequently challenged on their beliefs.

One of the most significant changes of the current coronavirus crisis has been the wholesale shifting of the workforce from corporate offices to virtual working, using technology and digital communication to replace face-to-face interactions in communal spaces.

New research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education into how leaders are being trained to lead in the digital age has revealed some serious gaps in their development of capabilities for the new landscape, These range from lack of training in the basics of online networking skills to a vacuum in developing the key values-based leadership behaviours essential to projecting an authentic presence online.

A key feature of business survival after the pandemic is likely to be the acknowledgement and leverage of key interdependencies in supply chains, so successful leadership is going to rely heavily on developing and leveraging networks.

However, the Ashridge study showed that the least used development technique in most organisations was to provide training in the use of online networking tools to build and maintain relationships. Instead leaders were still being provided with traditional resources such as personal coaching, books, and articles to learn these skills.

There is obviously an overwhelming need for leaders to have the technical competence to use social media effectively in a WFH world, but technical competence alone will not be enough.


To avoid careless and potentially untrustworthy ‘leadership by hashtag’, leaders must use the influence they can have through social media with responsibility and integrity, which brings into focus the issue of a leader’s character.

The importance of a leader’s values, or ethical standards is heightened in a digital world where leaders are frequently challenged on their beliefs. It is essential that not only are leaders aware of the values that drive their behaviour, but that those values are truly aligned to the behaviours that create and drive the culture of the organisation.

All too often leadership development focuses on short term behavioural change programmes, rather than in-depth personal development which explores values, motivations, and aspirations. Such leadership development that does put organisational ‘purpose’ rather than profit at its heart is often reserved only for senior leaders.

Yet, the advent of social media has shown us that anyone can be a leader. The technology has replaced the traditional pecking order for leadership development. Decisions must be made swiftly, and close to their points of relevance, so more junior managers must not only be sure of their own leadership values but must also have real clarity as to their organisational purpose and strategy

So, there are three main implications of this for leadership development and HR professionals as they seek to keep a forward focus on the skills their businesses will need to survive and thrive.

  • First, this research demonstrated a clear need for leaders to develop enhanced competence in ‘filter management’. The sheer quantity of information available has risen exponentially and leaders must have the hardcore technical competence to use wisely and responsibly including big data management.
  • Second, it is imperative that leaders are able to deal with information overload, and to prioritise. They must have explicit development of their decision-making skills as a core component of their leadership and executive growth.
  • And third, and perhaps most importantly as the rules of leadership shift from hierarchical to more level types of power dynamics, when almost anybody can access leadership influence through social media, it is critical that personal values are examined, understood and translated into responsible leadership behaviours. Here, business educators must provide the space, the reflection, and the personal insight for leaders to do the right things with the information they have access to.

To sum up, L&D professionals need to offer training which focuses on developing competence and capacity in the key social media skills that every leader requires. These include developing and distributing media-rich content, sifting, and filtering information and making sound decisions.

But this is not enough. At the same time, we must support deep self-perception and understanding of the leadership values that will future proof the organisations of tomorrow.


About the author

Patricia Hind is professor of management development, Hult Ashridge Executive Education.




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