Redefining Leadership in the Digital Age

green and white leafed plantsRedefining Leadership in the Digital Age

“Each new age has required a new breed of leader to create and manage its success and progress.”

Government leaders and managers face unique and unprecedented challenges in the decades ahead. Some leaders, recognizing the extent to which times are indeed changing, will rise to these tremendous challenges. But many may not, something that should concern us all, for in times of very rapid social transformation, we need not just good government, but great government. And this is impossible without exceptional visionaries and managers in charge of all the various zones and levels of government. Despite what the general public sometimes thinks of leaders and managers in government, the burden of responsibility is never easy. And as the next century unfolds, the job of government management is going to get tougher still. For one thing, the new digital environment will make bureaucratic processes even more transparent and open to public criticism. Beyond this, however, lay challenges of a far more substantial nature.It would certainly be daunting enough if all that leaders and planners had to cope with were today’s frantic speed of change and a continuously accelerating demand for new skills. But in addition to these, as we move to a knowledge-based network economy, the very essence of leadership itself is also changing. Leadership as a subject cannot be separated from its broader context of social and economic organization. So as methods of organizing and communicating change, the style and even the logic of leadership also must change to keep step. Today, planning for the future must now embrace very different parameters and objectives. Moreover, the actual ways that plans are formulated and implemented must now also change. All of which adds up to one fundamental conclusion: A new kind of society requires a new kind of leader or manager – so much so that much of what we previously thought a leader was and did may now prove quite wrong in this new age. Of course, this in itself is not new. History is filled with examples of leaders whose methods and accomplishments, if put in a modern context, would have brand them not as social heroes, but rather criminals or worse.

Genghis Khan, for instance, was ruthless by any standard. One after another, whether in battle or by deceit, he killed his rivals. The history books of most nations today regard him as one of the past’s great villains, a barbarian. But not the Mongols. For them, he was everything a man should be Ñ brave, wise, just and honest. He gave the Mongols unity, founded one of the great empires of the world, built up a remarkably effective administration and army, and laid down a strict code of laws.

At its height, about 1 million Mongols had subjugated and ruled nearly 200 million people in far-flung territories. At a time when all long-distance communication traveled by horseback, this empire was too extensive to really be governed from one center in the modern sense. Essentially, the Mongols just collected taxes wherever they could and spent this money on war, buildings and communication – eventually developing a very elaborate postal service more than half a millennium before the Pony Express.

But whatever the difficulties and accomplishments, the style and methods of Genghis Khan and his Mongol successors never could succeed in a more technologically advanced society. In fact, the development of gunpowder and firearms did away with what vestiges of power remained of the Mongol empire.

The real point here is that Genghis Khan was but one of a long list of leaders in the history books who succeeded through expediencies that today would neither work nor be tolerated. Each new age has required a new breed of leader to create and manage its success and progress. In this regard, the information or knowledge age is no different.

Changing Environments

The new paradox of leadership today is that seemingly all the right things can be done for all the right reasons – sensible and prudent reasons – and yet the result at the end of the day can still be resounding failure.

This is most easily seen in the commercial sector. Time and again, the company that is stellarly successful and dominates its markets is suddenly, a few years later, in trouble. Its management finds itself in deep crisis. Even if outright bankruptcy doesn’t loom, the whole organizational culture, once the very root of corporate success, somehow has become a distinct liability. The corporate culture has somehow become the very thing that now seems to hold the organization back. New competitors with fresh ideas and innovative organizational approaches are the ones making all the gains.

Bill Gates has every reason to believe that Microsoft’s market domination of PC operating systems is far less secure than traditionalists sometimes maintain. Even a company like Microsoft can be rapidly overtaken by a technological innovation. Gates was rather late, for instance, in realizing that the Internet would come to dominate almost everything else in the PC marketplace and that the Web browser would become the most widely used PC application.

While less easy to see, the interplay between old organizational cultures and innovation has everything to do with success or failure in the government arena. Innovation can rapidly alter not just how things can be done efficiently, but even more importantly, it can also change virtually the whole playing field in a remarkably short period. This is again best seen in terms of the commercial environment.

The metaphor of the buggy-whip factory illustrates the point. A manager might be running his buggy-whip factory in a superlative manner. Production is way up. Costs are way down. Service delivery has never been better, customers are delighted and loyal, and the employees are happy. Nevertheless, this theoretical brilliantly managed buggy-whip factory was made obsolete by the car. The playing field changed.

Peter Drucker talks about this in terms of the business theory of an organization, something that often has to be completely reinvented if the business is to stay in step. This reinvention goes far beyond outsourcing, downsizing, reengineering and benchmarking, all of which are merely tools that allow organizations to do differently what they are already doing. The real test, the real challenge, however, comes when all that an organization does, and even its very reason for being in an economic sense, has to change dramatically.

This has happened time after time to even the biggest corporations – companies that once dominated the commercial landscape. The time arrives when the basic assumptions on which these companies were built and run no longer fit the new reality.

This kind of change occurs just as frequently in government as it does in the private sector. But the nature of democratic government, with all its checks and balances, makes altering the Òbusiness theory of governmentÓ more difficult.

So the real problem often isn’t that government is doing things poorly or even that it is doing the wrong things. It might even be doing all the right things in the old context, things that now, however, are relatively fruitless – the buggy-whip phenomenon. So for government, just as in the commercial marketplace, the fundamental assumptions, the core mission, must somehow kept pace with new realities no matter how fast these change.

All this lies at the core of the real challenges for government leadership in the years ahead. In times of hectic social transformation, the first job of leadership is to ensure that the basic assumptions on which an organization or agency exists are relevant and in tune with the new environment. This means that both current priorities and long-established programs have to be constantly re-evaluated. Are these, in fact, even needed at all, and, if so, in what form? Beyond this, as the environment changes, is what a department or agency should be doing now something quite different than it has done in the past?

Put simply, the more a society changes, the more that government is likely to be expending too many of its resources doing what it now should no longer be doing. It is just as likely to be using far too little of its resources to do the new things that really need to be done. Effectively dealing with these broad thrusts, often in spite of much internal and external resistance, is what good leadership has to be about in this new age.

Leading Without Authority

If this were all that leaders had to contend with, the job of managing would not be that difficult. However, the rise of network-style organization is now starting to change even the fundamental premise of leadership itself. In the past, positions of leadership in any organization naturally carried with them certain clearly define parameters of authority. But that will not necessarily continue to be the case.

The old command-and-control model of organization is not entirely compatible with the notion of a network composed of autonomous or semi-autonomous nodes.

As John Naisbitt once pointed out, for a network to work, everyone has to feel that they are in the center. That’s when networks become really powerful.

In the commercial world, the new model now coming to the fore is one in which organizations restyle themselves as networks of entrepreneurs. Multinational companies like HP, IBM and GE continuously seek to inculcate not just the speed, but also the spirit, the heart and soul of the small company into their large sprawling organizations.

And so, increasingly in business, the new role of leadership is seen not in terms of commanding in the old sense, but rather facilitating entrepreneurism. ÒEconomies are replaced and revitalized by entrepreneurs, bottom up,Ó Naisbitt noted. Economically speaking, the new test of leadership is no longer what is happening at the top of an organization, but rather what is happening at the bottom.

This is today even truer in government than in business. But so far, government has lagged behind virtually all other social sectors in creating an environment in which real entrepreneurism is possible at all levels of organization.

In government, we are still casting about to see what kind of leadership we actually need for this new age. But that is a process that can’t go on forever. Sooner or later there lies an inevitable shake-up at all levels of government – not just a digital retooling of services, but a reinvention of government purposes and processes themselves, and a gut-wrenching redefinition of the very reason for government in the first place. This isn’t a process that will be comfortable. Yet it now appears quite unavoidable if many of the basic assumptions of government are to change.

Amidst this, leaders and managers have to learn to manage in a network environment in which they don’t have the same kind of command authority they once did, in which they are neither controlled or controlling – the fundamental management change ahead, according to Drucker.

Knowledge Leadership

If all this were not enough to challenge leaders and entire organizations, there is even a more fundamental shift that is changing the nature of leadership.

We are moving from an industrial society geared to the production of things as its primary activity to a knowledge society, in which products of the human mind are the keys to new wealth. This shift also calls for an entirely different style of leadership.

Processes for producing true knowledge and useful knowledge products don’t work quite the same way as processes for producing and distributing physical things.

In an industrial society, while adequate quality was certainly important, it was actually quantity of production that tended to increase wealth. All our notions of management, at their most basic level, related to the creation and distribution of quantity. The more items a factory made and sold, the more money it made, the more jobs it created and the bigger it got.

But in terms of knowledge and knowledge products, quantity takes on quite a different meaning. The right piece of new knowledge can completely alter the value of large volumes of previously existing knowledge. A new piece of knowledge can even make what passed for previous knowledge next to worthless. All this can happen virtually overnight.

At the same time, knowledge doesn’t get used up the way physical commodities do. So quantity of knowledge is far less important than its quality.

Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com Corp. and the designer of the Ethernet protocol, proposed what is now often referred to as Metcalfe’s law: The usefulness of a network equals the square of the nodes or people that connect to it.

Knowledge is similar to networks in this regard. The real value of a knowledge product is determined both by the numbers of people that use it and by the extent to which it affects and changes the broad field of knowledge.

Illustration by lumaxart. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

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