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What Does it Take to be a Leader in the Digital Era?

How should we define the keys to successful leadership now that we are fully immersed in the Digital Era? This post shares diverse perspectives on the core characteristics and offers preliminary thoughts on integrating ideas and identifying themes. Readers are invited to contribute additional ideas, insights, and analysis.


As the Founder of both the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community and the Global Center for Digital Era Leadership (GCDEL), I regularly think about the keys to successful leadership, especially in the Digital Era. Last summer I decided to formalize my thinking by developing a set of core characteristics for Digital Era leaders. After working on an initial list of defining traits, I thought it might be worthwhile to crowdsource additional ideas. So I posed the following question via the Digital Era Thinkers (DET) Blog, on LinkedIn, and in a number of digital communities:

Thinking across sectors and disciplines, but focusing on the role of digital technology in organizations, economies, and societies, what do you think are the most important aspects for leaders to be successful?

The response was fantastic. Dozens of people weighed in, many providing thoughtful, interesting, and enlightening insights and perspectives that highlighted the complexity of the issue.

It was immediately evident this was going to be a bigger undertaking than I initially thought. So I asked Jerry Carducci (who has written guest posts for both the DET Blog and the SMinOrgs S.M.A.R.T. Blog) to join me in creating a unifying structure to make sense of the ideas and themes that had already emerged, as well as the new thinking that was likely to develop as the project continued to evolve. We then invited Karin Wills, another thoughtful Digital Era thinker, to join the project as well.

Diverse Perspectives

The raw feedback to my initial query (including some responses from me) offers great food for thought:

Defining Characteristics of Digital Era Leaders – Comments

A few things to keep in mind as you review these comments:

  • The comments are grouped by source, which are listed in alphabetical order. All the sources are hyperlinked, though most require membership to access the details. If you have problems with the hyperlinks, please send a message to [email protected] and we’ll help you troubleshoot.
  • The comments are listed in chronological order within each source, with the oldest listed first. They are copied exactly as they were originally typed, with no editing. The authors’ names are not included because most of the comments were made in semi-private spaces.

Additional thinking on the subject can also be found through the following:

Integrating Ideas and Identifying Themes

As Jerry dived into the details and we had several discussions about how to integrate our own perspectives with the input of others, we identified a few key themes, including:

  • A Digital Era leader can be characterized by both the presence and absence of specific characteristics. We must think about not only what they should do, but what they should not do.
  • The distinctions between what it takes to successfully lead a technology company and what it takes to lead other types of organizations are becoming less pronounced.
  • Certain leadership characteristics (e.g., strategic thinking) are timeless, whereas others (e.g., relationship management) require a degree of redefinition. Still others may be altogether new.

Here’s one proposed way of organizing the requisite skills (click to enlarge the image). We know there are others and will continue refining our perspective, but this provides something concrete for people to consider.

Digital Era Leadership Skills - Chart
Your Thoughts?

As we move forward with the project, we’d like to invite more people to weigh in on the fundamental question, as well as some of the nuances that the initial set of perspectives has surfaced. Specifically, we’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the following:

  • What characteristics (including traits, knowledge, skills and behaviors) do you think leaders need to have to be successful in the Digital Era?
  • Do these characteristics vary based on leadership role within the organization (e.g., team based, mid-level, C-Suite and board room)? Should they be weighted differently?
  • Do factors such as sector (e.g., public, private, nonprofit, education, healthcare) create a different set of critical success factors? How about factors like workforce characteristics, market and other demographics, or geography?
  • Would the same factors apply to cultural, social and political leaders as they do to organizational leaders?
  • Are there hidden and forthcoming trends that should be factored in the analysis?

We look forward to and welcome your views along these lines, as well as any additional thoughts and insights you’d like to share.

– Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD
– Jerry Carducci
– Karin Wills

Leave a Comment


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David Dejewski

I really enjoyed this. Well assembled. Well presented. Great content to think about / discuss. A great post!

I’ve pretty much put my thoughts out there in my series on Leadership, and in posts like Three Tips on Leadership from the Street, so I’ll try not to repeat too much here.

I’m not sure how much the essence of leadership has changed in the digital era. The need for flexibility, transparency, and comfort with distributed work environments might have a renewed emphasis and require new tactics, but one could argue that these were always important.

I doubt that a leader from just about any era would say that they didn’t struggle with distributed work environments. They may, however be surprised by the ease at which employees can communicate across organizational boundaries – without ever leaving their desk.

Leaders have more tools than ever to employ at each phase in their development. People are more democratic in some environments perhaps. Leaders can (and do) have their flaws pointed out pretty quickly via digital means, but that just puts more pressure on the leader to master basic essential skills that have been requirements for a long time.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks so much for your positive feedback and thoughtful comment, David. I look forward to reading your posts in greater detail as the project evolves.

I agree that there may not be (m)any *new* skills required of leaders, but I definitely see a strong consensus toward both redefining some of the classic characteristics and recognizing the enhanced intensity that digital technology brings out. Things have definitely changed…