The Role of Leadership in the Evolved Enterprise

Traditionally, leadership has been considered a matter of authority defined by organizational hierarchy. People are leaders because they are in charge and have been granted authority.  

There has also been a countervailing point of view from the champions of the concept of empowerment – the glass halffull view, if you will. This perspective holds that anyone can lead by influence, even if they lack organizational authority.  

Compounding the potential for confusion around what kinds of leadership we might need is the fact that there are already so many leadership models and frameworks: design leadershipadaptive leadershipsituational leadershipto name but a few. 

Given what we’re seeing in successful transformations in the digital age, we’ve been thinking about how we might want or need to redefine our concept of leadership and its role in helping organizations navigate and thrive through the disruption. What precisely might be new, different or simply worth re-framing 

How Are Organizations Changing in the Digital Age?

Organizations in the new millennium are facing dramatic changes in how they need to operate to compete. Digital technology erased national borders, exploded expectations around business hours, and upped the ante on transparency and customer experience. Continued relevance requires enterprises to perform to new standards: always-on, agile and global, swiftly sensing and responding to the ever-changing demands of their customers. 

As described in our recent research using the lens of our Human Centered Transformation Model (DNA, Body, Mind & Soul)evolved enterprises able to compete at this new pace have actively changed governance (in the Body), built skills in agile (in the Mind), which in turn means new ways of working with very different rituals and symbols around leadership (Soul). 

If we step back and observe what happens in these agile, cross-functionally driven workplaces, we find an interesting distinction between roles has emerged: 

  1. There are “process” roles, e.g., Scrum masters and agile coaches, who guide teams and functions through an iterative process of problem definition, solution definition and solution delivery. 
  1. There is also a wide array of “content” roles, for instance, there are product owners, researchers, marketers, strategists, designers, engineers, analysts and data scientists. 

These roles have something in common that goes far beyond hierarchy, or a lack thereofwhen enacted effectively, these roles (and the division between the two kinds) provide tremendous clarity. That clarity allows individuals to swiftly take specific, positive actions to advance progress. Those team members also continuously communicate the actions they are taking. From a ritual perspective, they do this at a very high frequency, e.g., at daily standup meetings. They also prefer a new generation of messaging tools, like Slack or Teams, over asynchronous communications like email, to keep that stream of communications going in real-time. And they use tools like physical and/or digital Scrum and Kanban boards to create increased transparency 

Framing a More Relevant Definition of Leadership 

Perhaps then the keys to leadership in our current era are related to these very characteristics of clarity, communication and transparency. In fact, we might frame a working definition of modern leadership as: 

Modern Leadership: Continuously providing the clarity that enables others to take positive, unambiguous action. 

For those of us who have tended to support the idea of empowerment in leadership, what’s attractive about a definition this expansive is that it enables us to see how everyone can lead, irrespective of hierarchy, as well as how everyone should lead, regardless of their specific role in any one moment. They should work to continuously provide the clarity that allows others to take positive action.  

In a world where leadership is purely a function of hierarchy, bad leaders paralyze the firm. They paralyze it by being unclear, which creates fear that punishment will be doled out if the action is deemed “wrong.” As a result, people wait to take action until they are certain it will be categorized as “right.” 

In a world where leadership is about providing clarity, employee engagement inevitably soars because people understand what they can and should be doing. They are not waiting. They are not paralyzed with fear that they might be doing something for which they will be punished later. 

Depending on an individual’s role in an organization, the form that their leadership takes may be different. A receptionist might lead by communicating to a candidate the status of the interviewer (running late), what the guest wifi code is (m0d3rnl3@d3r), and where the restrooms are located, enabling them to relax, refocus and feel prepared. A department leader might lead by clearly specifying desired outcomes, functional leaders’ decision rights, and then letting those leaders lead (without impediment). 

Bringing the Definition of Modern Leadership to Life 

To compete at the fast and furious pace of today’s marketplace, work in an agile and iterative fashion, and continuously be able to out-innovate your competition, you must have clarity. The clarity that truly modern leaders are dedicated to providing. Naturally, the question is how might our organization communicate this more relevant definition of leadership so that we might inspire and engage our people, even as we increase our business performance? 

Our recommendation is that you make sure you explicitly reframe your definition of leadership as part of any comprehensive transformation effort, like digital transformation. The implications of this re-definition will likely impact all areas of the Human Centered Transformation Model, driving you to 

  1. Define a clear transformation ambition with a specific time and metrics (DNA); 
  1. Establish the mindset and behaviors that all work is agile, and agile work is based on continuous iteration, experimentation and communication (Soul); 
  1. Develop agile product development and management skills across all functions (Mind); 
  1. Give each role complete authority within its span and eliminate as many levels of organizational governance as you can by devolving focused authority into product and experience owners (Body). 

While these suggestions are directed at those who set strategy and direction in our organizations, the challenge for each individual colleague in the digital age is to ask ourselves how might we provide clarity that enables others to take positive, unambiguous action each and every day?

Interested to learn more about honing your leadership skills for the digital age? Get in touch. And if you’d like to read more about how you can start to build your own disruption mindset then this book by the founder of Prophet’s Altimeter analyst team, Charlene Li, speaks to some of the most audacious people driving disruptive transformation today.