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Redefining Leadership: Ten Commandments for the Digital Age

“Learning is not mandatory; neither is survival!”

Edwards Deming’s assertion many years ago is most relevant in today’s context. The rapid mortality rate of companies in the digital age is ultimately a leadership issue. The success of the digital transformation for organizations depends on how well leaders transform themselves first. Along with a healthy dose of optimism, leaders need to demonstrate unprecedented levels of learning agility. This is crucial because the very survival of their organizations is at stake.

Then, how does a leader develop clarity in the age of digital? Perhaps by doing what Alvin Toffler once said: “by unlearning, re-learning and learning”, and not just about technologies; more importantly about mindsets and behaviors.

I am an honorary alumnus of the Indian Business School in Hyderabad and have the honor of being invited for lectures regularly. I met Rajiv Jayaraman during one of my lectures and we have been following (and supporting) each others’ work since. A TEDx speaker and a thought leader in the space of digital transformation and learning, Rajiv has a keen interest in the psychology and business of learning. As the Founder-CEO of KNOLSKAPE, a talent transformation platform, he works with CXOs and senior leaders of leading organizations to aid their talent transformation strategies in the digital age.

I was thrilled to learn about Rajiv’s new book coming “Clearing the Digital Blur“, which argues there are quite a few things that leaders must unlearn in reach of rethinking talent in the speed of digital.

Below, you can find some insight into his current thinking.

Leadership Unlearning

  1. Digitalization demands a new leadership style

With the emergence of boundary-less organizations and the proliferation of stakeholders, leaders must unlearn old leadership habits anchored around command and control. Leading with authority is passé. Leading without authority is very much in vogue.

An industrial-age leader’s natural response to valuable resources is to hoard. Digital leaders’ natural response is to share. It is in fact by sharing that digital leaders gain their license to influence others without authority.

Continuous collaboration and real-time dialogue between leaders, managers and frontline employees is a crucial success factor in the digital age. Leaders must architect a collaborative, networked organization that responds to internal and external changes in an agile fashion.

Digital also forces leaders to be much more engaged with the external environment of the organization, be it with governments, NGOs or consumer groups.

  1. Digitalization requires a complete re-think of the external business environment

The companies that are likely to disrupt an industry are increasingly unlikely to come from the same industry. The ones that are armed with a digital arsenal from different industries are becoming threats to incumbents. To develop foresight, leaders need to develop a clear understanding of the forces that are shaping not just their industries but also other industries.

Additionally, be it the 4Ps of marketing or Porter’s 5 forces, the traditional lenses for analysing the external business environment have become less relevant in the digital age. It may be useful for business leaders in their respective industries to ask, “What would Google do”? This question brings to sharp focus the re-thinking that needs to be done to be relevant in the new age.

  1. Organizational mission and purpose to be revisited

Leaders may need to revisit the “Why” question for their organizations and question assumptions behind the business model of the organization and the industry. To adapt, they would need to bring the risk of disruption into business planning, no matter how comfortable they may feel at this point about their business performance. The single most important factor that galvanizes the ecosystem partners, customers and employees of the organization is the overarching organizational mission.

Leadership Re-learning

  1. Digital is an organizational capability

Digital is not just a senior leadership issue. Digital capabilities need to be built from individual contributors all the way up to the board. Failing which, severe gaps would likely rear their ugly heads between strategy and execution. To add to this, capability building needs to be an agile, continuous process. Nothing captures this better than Peter Senge’s timeless quote, The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”

  1. Change must be built into the organizational DNA

The operating principle in the digital world is that if something can be disrupted, it will be. Adapt or perish, the inexorable law of nature is more true today than ever before. Digital has caused tectonic shifts that have displaced individual companies and even industries. Change management used to be a program management activity for companies faced with a massive transformation. Today, leaders must ensure that the capability and motivation to continuously change are built into the very DNA of the organization.

Digital revolution is not so much a technology revolution, it is a cultural revolution. Organizations that have an agile, open and learning culture will thrive and others will fall by the wayside.

  1. Strategy at the speed of digital

There used to be a time when leaders could lock themselves up for weeks on end to come up with their five-year strategic plans. Today, the shelf life of strategy has been drastically reduced, and more importantly, strategy and execution happen “in sync” in a tight feedback loop on the job. It is no longer a closed room exercise.  The ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ cycle advocated by Eric Ries in his book, “The Lean Startup” for product development is also very much applicable to business strategy.

Leadership Learning

  1. Design Thinking: From economies of scale to economies of experience

Leaders who have earned their stripes in the industrial era need to pay attention to Design Thinking. In the industrial age, business decisions were geared towards achieving economies of scale by optimizing operations through a one-size-fits-all approach. Today, digital has empowered individuals in an unprecedented fashion. Consequently, hyper-personalization is expected in every offering, be it with consumers or employees. In other words, one size fits none.

By following a structured design thinking process, leaders can create differentiation for their businesses by crafting exceptional personalized experiences for their stakeholders.

  1. Agility: Fast fish eats the slow fish

In an on-demand world, if organizations are not agile, irrelevance is imminent. To succeed in this new environment, leaders need to empower their managers and frontline employees with enough avenues to take agile decisions and bring information back to the organization to learn about the outcomes. Organizations such as Zappos and Medium are experimenting with holacracy, which is a whole new way of organizing work to enable agility in the organization.

  1. From educated guesses to data-driven insights

Business leaders need to ensure that decisions across levels are guided by data and insights. The successes of many new-age digital organizations show that organized data-driven trial and error process is guaranteed to produce better results at an organizational level than the educated guess of a lone genius.

  1. In constant search of blue oceans

Innovation cannot just be a buzzword. Leaders must champion bold experiments on a continuous basis and help organizations learn faster. This requires leaders to prepare themselves and others for embracing volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and risk. Searching for blue oceans is no longer a one-off activity, it is part of the daily agenda.


  • 20 February 2019

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