Leadership Excellence for the Digital Age: Ten Tips for Converting Possibility into Reality (Part One)

Leadership at the helm of progressive organizations is becoming increasingly difficult—due in part to the lure of efficiency-driven technology powered by artificial intelligence (AI), significantly impacting the corporate landscape.  Innovation is being seen as the key to relevance and survival in the digital age, rather than as an afterthought for assuring business competitiveness.

The rules for running successful enterprises are being rewritten as old theories and established practices consistently fail in the face of the rise of ambitious startups.  Consequently, corporate stakeholders are frantically searching for the elixir to attain/sustain leadership excellence in the digital age to ensure that promising possibilities are converted into gainful opportunities in a timely and effective manner.

Here are ten tips for moving purposefully and robustly in the respective direction:

Tip #1: Being a Visionary is not Enough—Be a Futurist
Being a futurist is not an option for visionary leaders in the digital age; rather, it is an indispensable skill that needs to be actively and prominently cultivated throughout the pipeline of succession planning initiatives.

During the early part of the 21st Century, Nokia was a dominant player in the cellular market. It led in innovation and introduced many iconic models, including the legendary Nokia 3310.  However, the senior management couldn’t foresee the untapped potential of a platform-based, hand-held device that could derail its status of being the world-leader in cellular technology. This was amply exploited by Apple through the introduction of the iPhone.

Nokia tried to mount a challenge by introducing more models that catered to the varying tastes of current and potential customers; however, it kept ignoring the broader ecosystem of digital communication that invalidated its rebounding initiatives.Eventually, Nokia was sold to Microsoft by the then-CEO, Stephen Elop, who uttered the insightful remarks through tears: “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost,” at the press conference for announcing the respective acquisition.

The pace of digital evolution is unsettling, unforgiving and unrelenting.  While Nokia achieved the vision of being the global leader, it could not capitalize on the future of digital communication due to its excessive inward focus. Instead, they “should” have been embracing the vast potential of an evolving ecosystem that opened wider horizons for its competitors to tickle the imagination of customers in freeing themselves from the shackles of loyalty and reorient their lives around the new normal.

Tip #2: Invest in Open and Flexible Talent Management Systems
Talent management systems in the digital era need to allow “breathing space” for free thinkers and trendsetters within organizations. Conventional talent management systems are designed to be directional, disciplinary and dedicated.  However, the digital age mandates timely and astute innovation which requires the magnanimity of enterprising experimentation that beckons trendsetters and free-thinkers to stretch the boundaries of “acceptable norms” in converting possibilities into opportunities.

These professionals generally have the capability of staying committed through nagging struggles, possess steady focus during sleepless nights of self-reflection, and frequently display uncompromising valour in neutralizing the fear of failure in order to achieve desired goals.

Some progressive organizations have developed separate functional entities to accommodate such initiatives that are not aligned with the customary running of the organization. This will become more prevalent as AI-enabled machines/devices become part of the workforce by graduating to an “electronic team member” role from a primarily “mechanistic assistant” in current applications; this incentivizes their humans counterparts to engage in more cerebral roles in order to justify/maintain their relevance.

Tip #3: Be Welcoming of the Increasingly Sensitized and Connected World
The world has been steadily shrinking in terms of rapid communication, knowledge-transfer and wide connectivity.  Every Internet-savvy person has a stake in the global context due to the extensive diffusion that has brought relevance to isolated/marginalized communities—while opening organizations to the glaring spotlight of corporate accountability from multiple perspectives.

One of the “Big Three” airlines in the United States, United Airlines, learnt this the hard way when a musician’s guitar was broken on one of its flights during baggage handling, and he was consistently refused compensation despite repeated requests.  Consequently, he channeled his talents into making an engaging video “United Breaks Guitars” which garnered a huge following on YouTube and forced United Airlines to issue an apology with an offer of compensation while suffering a significant blow to its corporate reputation, stock price and customer goodwill.

Concerns for environment and social imbalances have added extra dimensions for competitive organizations to proactively engage in remedial measures before irreparable harm is done to increasingly fragile reputations. The term “activist” has shifted from its rudimentary contemplation as an act of defiance pertaining to societal upheaval to a more apt description of an “engaged” stakeholder. Therefore, organizations with an eye on thriving in the future are well-advised to heed the adage  that “someone is always watching” and proactively embrace the consequences of their actions in a more accommodating and responsible manner.

Tip #4: Don’t Undermine Innovation with Technology by Marginalizing the “Human Factor”
Technology is highly addictive due to the promise of problem-solving and comfort, especially, when aligned with customer needs and expectations.  However, a key mistake committed in the exuberance of adopting new technology is that we neglect the human factor and too often equate technology to innovation. This marginalizes the human factor that defines the soul of an organization and forms the essential vanguard of its competitiveness.

Quite often, organizations go through binge-spending on promising technologies with the hope of improving operations. However, without proper due-diligence, this generally results in regrettable situations (e.g., expensive investments that are not needed, multiple technologies that do not integrate with each other, depreciation of workforce’s inherent ingenuity, plausibility of cheaper solutions, etc.).

Innovation is an inherently humanistic concept that refers to astute application of human ingenuity, whereas technology is a consequential ‘mechanistic’ tool that enables the efficient accomplishment of targeted tasks/assignments/responsibilities.  Keeping the “human factor” in prime position while charting the course of a prosperous future in the digital age ensures internal harmonization in congruence with the optimal technological solutions.

Tip #5: Ingrain “Diversity & Inclusion” as Core Culture  and Promote Confidence Boosting Measures
Consistently progressive, suitably paced and reliably profitable growth in the digital age is increasingly dependent upon the richness of the diversity and inclusion factor in the workplace. Different perspectives not only open and widen horizons, but provide formidable competitiveness in appealing and catering to customer needs and expectations from diverse backgrounds; diversity and inclusion liberate the workplace from regressive fear-driven practices.  Critical attention to employee well-being is essential to ensuring that diversity and inclusion initiatives don’t fade away under the deceptive lights of glamorous “employer branding” initiatives which are big on touting diversity, but fail miserably on inclusion.

The foundations of inclusiveness at the workplace are primarily strengthened by the “informal” social engagements and “voluntary” bonding between diverse employees,—rather than as a consequence of the refinement of the “formal” talent management strategies and measures.  For example, you need only see the “natural” composition of the lunch tables in the office cafeterias and/or the coalescing of “affinity” groupings in the corporate leisure rooms to realize the enormity of inherent challenges.

A receptive organizational culture buoyed by core values and complemented by astute talent management strategies can go a long way in realizing the potential, often unnoticed in organizations, for achieving/sustaining a competitive edge in countless ways. This is best achieved by aiming for a reign of unabated positivity in the workplace that incentivizes a sense of belonging and engagement for those yearning to unleash their unexplored potential.

Leadership Excellence for the Digital Age: 10 Tips For Turning Possibility Into Reality (Part Two)

Murad Salman Mirza is an innovative thinker and an astute practitioner of areas within and associated with the fields of Organisational Development, Talent Management and Business Transformation. He has lived, studied and served in different regions of the world, including the US, Australia, South Asia and the Middle East. Murad has more than 15 years of multi-disciplinary experience and has rich exposure to multiple sectors within the corporate world. Currently, he is engaged as a Board Member with two US-based organizations. His LinkedIn profile can be viewed at: Murad Salman Mirza.

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