When I did the research late last year for the Econsultancy report on Effective Leadership in the Digital Age, one of the (many) interesting things to come out of it was the emphasis placed by the interviewees on the value of softer skills. Nobody that I spoke to (and I spoke to a lot of senior client-side people) was saying that traditional leadership characteristics such as having a strong commercial focus or being visionary, inspiring or clear-minded and action-oriented when it was needed were no longer important, but many talked about the increasing value in 'softer' qualities such as curiousity, empathy, collaboration, creativity and adaptability.
Which was interesting since one of the points of view I came across in my desk reading, from researchers at Wharton University, seemed to posit something very similar. The Wharton academics were effectively saying that leadership styles needed to change to reflect the fact that digital had enabled new business models, new sources of value and new types of relationship with suppliers, partners, customers. Whilst more traditional 'command and control' leadership styles were still valid in some scenarios, leaders needed to increasingly embrace the role of collaborator or co-creator. Where command and control assumes most of the key insights will come from the top of the organisation, the modern reality is increasingly about an emphasis on ideas and insights from wherever, meaning that leaders need to draw on a wider range of leadership styles to reflect this broader set of value sources. As more business models rely on the creation of technology, or on so-called 'network orchestration' involving value being derived from more intangible assets such as relationships, leadership styles that prioritise collaboration or co-creation become more important.
And IDEO founder Tim Brown expresses some similar thoughts here, arguing that the traditional way in which we've thought about leadership as 'leading from the front' with someone at the top making all the decisions, is not the most effective way of unlocking the the kind of creativity in an organisation that is so crucial in an environment that dictates a need to constantly evolve. He frames the role of the leader as an explorer - someone who can set the direction but also ask the best questions ('In traditional design terms, it's about setting the brief'). Modern, successful leadership, he says, is like a dance:
"It's about the effective playing of a number of different leadership roles depending on the moment and the circumstances and having the skill to move between those stances as needs require."
All of which means makes me inclined to agree with Jim Carroll's leadership metaphor about mechanics and gardeners:
'Surely in the digital age we need our leaders to be more gardeners than mechanics. Surely we need leaders who can plant and nurture; tend and grow. Modern leadership is not about power; it’s about empowerment. It’s not about controlling; it’s about cultivating.'