6 Leadership Styles for Embracing the Digital Revolution

6 Leadership Styles for Embracing the Digital Revolution

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The way we work is changing, and leadership styles are evolving to keep pace. I spend a lot of time talking to leaders in business around the world and it’s becoming clear that there are certain leadership traits that are coming more and more to the fore as the digital revolution gathers speed.

I talked recently about what watching my bees has taught me about digital leadership. One of the things I looked at was the different roles that bees take on during their life cycles. That made me want to explore more about different leadership styles – and what the digital revolution means for different types of leaders.

The three C’s of leadership

Let’s look first at some key criteria for leadership. When the British army started training officers to lead troops into battle, back in the early 1800’s, they summarised the criteria for leadership into the three C’s. Battlefields may have changed (as has business!), but these criteria still resonate with leaders in today’s digital workplace.

1. Courage

As a digital leader, you won’t generally be asked to risk your life, or those of your team! But being a leader still takes courage. Remember that successful digital transformation is about people, so your leadership of your workforce will be critical. You need to be able to hold the line in the face of opposition to difficult or unpopular changes, and to take yourself and your team out of a comfort zone and face new challenges. You’ll need to remain consistent and keep everyone focussed on the objectives. Being a leader can be isolating too. The reality is you may have to maintain a professional distance from your team and colleagues, and shoulder the weight of all the decision making.

2. Capability

For you to develop and maintain your credibility as a digital leader, you must be able to understand the nature of the transformation and the steps to be taken to achieve it. This understanding may come from your particular experience in the area, or from your personal mastery and ability to motivate and inspire your team. Your ability to articulate challenges and communicate them effectively, and your mastery of Design Thinking will all contribute to your digital leadership capabilities and the value that you add.

3. Character.

The British Army’s Sandhurst operates an extremely thorough selection process which tests leadership potential (courage and capability, and especially, character) in officer candidates. As a digital leader, you too have a responsibility to provide strong leadership. And that will come down to character as much as to your skills and experience. Understanding your own character – in particular your subconscious and how it influences your behaviour – is key to developing into a digital leader able to guide a team through the culture change needed to effect digital transformation.

Exploring six emotional leadership styles

Each of these six emotional leadership styles requires a balance of the three C’s of leadership, but some take more of one than others. So understanding yourself better will enable you to identify which of the leadership styles will work better for you – and for the particular digital leadership challenges you face.

1. Commanding leadership

The Commanding leadership style is appropriate in only a handful of business environments or projects. As a Commanding leader, you will need to be able to demand and receive action with little or no leeway for interpretation and minimal expectation of autonomy. This may be because a particular project carries specific controls, or where people’s safety and security is at stake, and the risk of not following orders is high. It might also be in response to a crisis, where as a leader you need to take control in order to mitigate negative consequences. This leadership style requires a high degree of courage and character, but remember that, in an innovative business culture, it is unlikely to be appropriate as a general rule, and most likely best saved for emergencies.

2. Democratic leadership

In contrast, collaboration, facilitation, and decision making are the focus of the democratic leadership style. Your communications will seek team input and you will use you active listening skills to the full. This democratic style is best suited at a stage in a project when you are ready to evaluate options and make decisions. It also works well when you need to gain individual and team buy-in from experienced team members and stakeholders. Your ability to lead and communicate using this leadership style will rely largely on your having the capability to build and maintain your credibility.

3. Pacesetting leadership

Pacesetting is a leadership style with high performance in mind, and a focus on setting goals, driving forward and meeting objectives. Whilst it can be a high impact approach, it can lack the relationship-building aspect of other styles, as a pacesetting leader rarely has the time or inclination to develop mutually supportive working relationship. Results are everything – this style is not a nurturing one. Successful use of this leadership style will require you to have put in place the right tools and training for your team – and you need the capability and character to be able to spot the signs of stress, and have things in place to deal with it.

4. Coaching leadership

The coaching leadership style is very different and is used to its best advantage when it individual team members to create links between their individual goals and company-wide objectives, giving them a “strong sense of higher purpose and the knowledge that the work they do matters.”

Using a coaching leadership style to guide your team through digital transformation will help to highlight individual team members’ skills, and will guide their professional development, and help to shape their career. Successful coaching style leadership relies on your being able to devote time and patience to building relationships and establishing trust.

5. Visionary leadership

As a visionary leader in the digital revolution, you’ll be the one inspiring your team with future potential, creating a culture of innovation. Visionary leaders rarely provide the specifics of how to achieve future goals, preferring to focus on the big picture rather than micromanaging the details. So this leadership style puts team members in the driving seat when it comes to taking initiative and deciding how to meet goals. It works well when dealing individually with people, and your character and capability will come to the fore – as you use your knowledge, experience and empathy to guide and enthuse. You could use it to great effect when talking about new goals or directions, and or when shaping change management.

6. Affiliative leadership

The affiliative leadership style puts people first in both actions and communications, and values a harmonious and co-operative team culture, based on encouragement, inclusion and effective conflict resolution. Active listening puts particular value on each individual’s personal input, and the affiliative leader factors this input into the decision-making process in order to avoid negative impact. Emotional connection is built and reinforced through team activities, like workshops and regular team meetings and exercises designed to strengthen the group. These activities also serve to share goals and feedback. Affiliative leadership is effective when tensions are running high, and for conflict resolution as well as being a motivating style.   

As you develop your own style as a digital leader, remember that different circumstances, projects and stages will require you to adopt different styles of leadership in order to get the best results from your team. A high degree of self-awareness will help you to judge which style you tend to adopt in different situations, and to consider whether you need to make an adjustment or try a contrasting approach.

You’ll need to think about what results are needed at a specific point – and the timeframe available to you. Creating an organisational culture in which individuals are enabled to be innovative and risk-taking will need to happen over time, with a high degree of coaching and vision. But swift responses to threats or crises may require you to adopt, temporarily, a pacesetting or commanding style.

Your priority as a leader will be to develop yourself, understand your own strengths and weaknesses and develop your capabilities in the areas needed to lead your team.


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