Responsible Leadership in the Digital Age

Digital Change
We live in a time of unprecedented change for organisations. According to Yale’s Dr Richard Foster, the average lifespan of leading organisations is down from a comfortable 67 years in 1965, to a fleeting 15 years in 2015.

We know that digital is one of the main drivers of this change, with businesses such as AirBnB, TransferWise and Uber – none of which existed prior to 2008 – acting as the multi-billion dollar poster boys for ‘digital disruption’ and re-shaping how we travel, shop, bank, eat…and also how we give.

Yes, digital has disrupted NGOs and not-for-profit organisations, bringing new and unforeseen changes. Consider the phenomenal effect of social media-driven giving – from ice buckets being tipped over heads to no make-up selfies – which highlighted the power of digital to scale up charitable work in an unprecedented way. Platforms such as JustGiving have raised over $3bn dollars and fundamentally changed how we give and communicate around the causes that matter to us. Charities can no longer ignore digital, yet many struggle with limited resources to maximise their use of it.

Given the pressure on organisations to respond, it’s no surprise to discover Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 reporting a massive 86% of 3000 plus global leaders cited both leadership and culture as the most important issues for their organisations. Worryingly though, only a pitifully low 6% of organisations reported feeling equipped to respond to the leadership challenges they are facing.

Leadership Response
So how do leaders need to respond? CoCreate recently co-authored an e-book on culture change in the digital age (you can download it for free here; and we've been working with leaders for years; from senior figures on wonderful leadership programmes such as the Forward Institute through to bright young global talent on Manchester City’s Young Leaders Summit. From that range of experience, allow me to highlight three essential components of responsible leadership, and how these stack up in the digital world.

1. Awareness of trends
Awareness is a foundation of leadership. Yet today’s leaders need to be aware of more that just themselves and other people. There is a whole world of trends and complexity out there to somehow be made sense of – and this is what effective leaders of today are managing to do.
Here are three simple approaches:
Tools – such as the wonderful Trends Radar from Brilliant Noise help leaders to plan and respond to complex trends more effectively.
Read more – it sounds so simple, and yet how many of us actually believe we read enough? Re-designing our days to prioritise gathering and reflecting on information can make a huge difference to our leadership.
Networks – organisations with flatter hierarchies and more networked people perform better. Consider who you connect to and how you can incorporate a wider range of information into your leadership decisions.

2. Make collective decisions
In a world that seems to speed up by the day, it's easy to get sucked into the belief that if you consider anything for too long then you’ll miss the boat. Yet responsible leadership needs informed decision-making, and asks the difficult questions.

This might mean that a healthy level of disagreement is needed – after all, some of the worst decisions in the world (such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco) were actually the product of too much agreement, resulting in what’s known as groupthink.
Here are three cornerstones for decision-making in a digital age:
Participation – there is no doubt about it, the evidence is in and the fact is that people today expect to participate more as Dan Pink argues in his brilliant book Drive. So whilst leaders must make decisions, it’s essential to create the space for active contribution to your decisions so that everyone feels heard.
Transparency – a product of the digital age is that less can be hidden, people will usually find out in one way or another. So be up front and transparent in your decisions and you’ll earn that key element that all effective leaders have – trust.
Vision – despite the messiness of predicting a future and charting a direction, our best approximation is usually better than none! People need to know where they are going, and good leadership helps people to see that future.

3. Move people to action
Leadership in the end boils down to what we actually do. So whilst leaders might help people see the future, we also need leaders to get involved and help people to make it.

Here are three things to consider when it’s time to act:
Pilot and scale – a wonderful digital term, it simply means find what works, and scale it up. The counterpart of course, is being willing to move on quickly from whatever is not working.
Listen – responsible leadership means listening to feedback from a wide range of stakeholders including staff, customers or programme beneficiaries and your wider community.
Adapt – be prepared to respond to changing needs, and remember that however good that five year plan is, one year after it’s written, it could well be out of date!

We’re not suggesting of course that any of these elements are easy, or indeed absolutely definitive. Yet when leaders today are able to broaden their horizons and spot trends, to make more collective decisions, and to create participative action as a result, then they are already closer to leading responsibly in the digital age.

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