Leading in a digital culture isn't all that digital

Leading in a digital culture isn't all that digital

Big Thoughts

29 May 2017 • Written by Dan Teo

"Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to." – Simon Sinek

If your employees were all volunteers, would they still follow you or would they up and leave? The days of leading from position are long gone – it's not enough to have title, rank or authority as a platform to lead. As the battle for talent takes centre stage in this Digital Age, leaders have to actively grow and intentionally practice their leadership skills if they are to thrive and succeed.

A good test for this is to ask yourself if your team would follow you if they didn't have to?

It goes without saying that, in order to be a leader, you have to have followers. A leader has followers if they truly believe that their leader have their best interests at heart. For this to happen, employees have to feel safe to be who they truly are. Then, and only then, will they trust, follow and fully throw themselves into their leader's cause. This is true followership.

With disruption in the technologies we use, there is also an exponential rise of confusion within leaders, many of whom find it difficult to connect with a changing digital workforce. This culture is impatient, fast-paced, ever-changing, experimentation-driven and information-rich. While this can often be mistaken as the millennial effect or the tension between different operating modes, a recent Forbes article which surveyed leadership of millennials shows common-sense leadership principles prevail regardless of generation.

The article captures four key principles to leading millennials:

  1. Empower your team
  2. Think long term
  3. Acknowledge what they do
  4. Treat them as individuals

What is interesting is that the principles above aren't at all unique to the environment or types of employees being led. Distilled at its core, the type of leadership required in a digital organisation is simply genuine leadership. Despite the changing times, the core skills of leadership have not changed. Employees will follow leaders who have their interests at heart, understand them as individuals and sometimes even make decisions at their cost.

What we see is a rise in employees who are hyper-sensitive to genuine leadership. We often hear that employees don't leave organisations, they leave managers. This couldn't be more true and it is this that showcases the vital role genuine leadership plays when finding and retaining great talent that can make or break your organisation.

So what makes a Genuine Leader? Here are four characteristics to reflect on:

Genuine Leaders take time to understand the individual as a whole

So much of who we are, how we think and behave is shaped by our past experience and how we have grown up. A conversation I had with my CEO recently went like this:

"Hearing how you grew up in Singapore and the environment there helped me understand how you make decisions and what you are influenced and shaped by".

It's easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the tasks at hand, simply working through what needs to be done with employees. The problem with this is that when conflict arises, most of the time it's due to individuals looking at a situation through different perspectives. Their perspectives are shaped by who they are, and we often don't take time to understand those who we lead fully, in order to stand in their shoes and see their perspective.

How often have you been in the situation where you can't seem to get through to someone and no matter how many times you try, they just don't seem to be on the same page? In these situations, we can be tempted to resort to leading with authority out of frustration.

Take time to understand individuals as a whole. We expect them to bring their whole selves to work so why not take the time to know them as a whole?

Genuine Leaders are front-stage and back-stage leaders

It's easy to spot leaders who aren't genuinely for the individuals in their team. In front of an audience they say and do the right things. But behind the scenes, when the individual isn't there, their actions reflect different intentions.

Being a leader is not about prestige, nor should it be a status symbol. Quite simply put, leadership is a choice and that choice comes with a weight of responsibility. Individuals that follow you believe you will create a safe environment for them and have a desire to add value to add to them. When leaders see their job at hand as a weighted burden, their perspective changes from ‘How can I get Bob to do what I want him to do’ to ‘How do I help Mary be the best she can be’.

When leaders adopt that kind of mindset, their actions naturally reflect that positive intent regardless of whether they are in front of a stage or whether they are working behind the scenes.

Genuine Leaders understand that people learn at their individual pace

Giving feedback is an important part of leadership. People should never be uncertain of how they are performing, good or bad. At General Electric, a culture of candour was built which was an important part of who they were, so much so that if you saw your manager in the bathroom, it would be normal to have a quick chat around performance and progress. It was not seen as a formal thing that happened once a year, rather something natural that represented who they are.

That said, giving effective feedback is a skill, and sometimes giving direct feedback too early can rob individuals from getting true value out it. In my time leading, I've found that the timing of giving feedback is just as important as giving the feedback itself. Sometimes the time pressures of a day leads leaders into feeling that giving feedback is a task to tick off. Genuine leaders take time to understand the growth journey of an individual and understand that individuals might not change immediately, not because they don't respect or want to listen to your feedback, but simply because change is hard!

This is where understanding the individual as a whole is so important. Sometimes coaching over a longer period of time is much more effective and you'll find that when the individual realises their blind spot, they end up ‘getting it’, being a bit embarrassed and become exponentially more committed to real change.

Genuine Leaders give context, understanding that why is more important than what

I've seen leaders fixated on the ‘what’, a decision or outcome that they want their teams to buy into and forgetting to communicate the ‘why’. When we are focused on the outcome, we tend to focus on the ‘what’, but when we focus on leading the individual, we take a more holistic view and focus on ‘why’.

This is why conversations are often more important than the actual outcome. I've seen two different leaders deliver the same message with totally different responses – one left high-performers in their team feeling demotivated, whereas the other created buy-in and support. Whether it be a policy, constraints to work within, or simply a difficult task at hand, genuine leaders who focus on leading the individual naturally focus on the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’.

If you are leading from a place of authority of position, it's likely you're communicating ‘what’ you want employees to do. The next time you are struggling to get buy-in, take a step back and reflect on the conversation. Try leading with ‘why’ before giving direction and keep your focus on genuinely leading the individual.

In a time where more and more buzz words are being created to tackle the fast-changing nature of adapting to a rise in being digital, it's important for us to understand that leading in a digital culture isn't all that digital. While new digital tools may aid us, nothing beats genuine, authentic and real leadership. 

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