My team has spent the better part of three years trying to figure out the most important leadership competencies (i.e. knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes) in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (A.K.A. “VUCA”) environment. After conducting extensive primary and secondary research, we were able to isolate the five “elements” of effective leadership: Be Planful, Learn to Learn, Distribute Leadership, Activate Networks, and Incorporate Influence. In combination, we refer to these elements as Integrated Leadership.
The elements of Integrated Leadership seemed a good place to start when deciding on the most important attributes of a leader operating in a digital environment. Before I get into my selections, I should give a quick explanation of each element of Integrated Leadership (McLean & Company, 2016):
- Be Planful – adequately plan for interactions (e.g. one-on-ones, meetings) and projects and always take time to reflect on your decisions (successes and failures)
- Learn to Learn – always question your assumptions and seek feedback
- Distribute Leadership – assign work based on competence and/or development opportunities (be willing to delegate high-value work)
- Activate Networks – use your networks to create value for yourself and others (e.g. connect people in your network who could benefit from knowing one another)
- Incorporate Influence – use influence to affect actions and outcomes beyond your direct control
In considering the most important attributes of a leader in a digital learning environment, it occurred to me that although all the elements of Integrated Leadership are important – some even show up in different language in academic literature (e.g. Khan, 2017, says “Adaptive leaders recognize the best solution to address problems based on current realities rather than actions based on the past” (p.180), which is the heart of Learn to Learn) – there is a gap related to digital leadership: communication and interpersonal effectiveness. In order to achieve success, digital leaders must embrace bi-directional, real-time communication with all stakeholders (Sheninger, 2014), as well as be transparent, engage in active listening, and have an “open door policy” (Castelli, 2016, p.222). Further, they should engage in emotionally supportive communication as this drives credibility among followers (Cameron, 2012, as cited in Castelli, 2016).
My personal approach to leadership has been primarily based on the Integrated Leadership model for several years now, though I also value and focus on clear, consistent communication. As my team members are geographically dispersed, digital technologies are the foundation of our communication; they enable us to keep our projects on track and generally help us to feel connected to one another personally. One change to my leadership approach when communicating primarily through technology is to schedule check-ins regularly as we don’t have the benefit of impromptu interactions that occur naturally in a shared office environment.
In considering the leadership theories that work best in leading change within digital learning environments, two came to mind: Reflective leadership and Adaptive leadership. Reflective leadership is ”the consistent practice of reflection, which involves conscious awareness of behaviours, situations and consequences with the goal of improving organizational performance” (Castelli, 2016). The practice of reflection helps leaders to “make sense of uncertain, unique, or conflicted situations” (De Dea Roglio and Light, 2009, p.217, as cited in Castelli, 2016) – in other words, to lead through change. The act of reflection itself can reveal an organization’s optimal course of action (Castelli, 2016). Adaptive leadership, by contrast, is focused on identifying potential changes in the external environment and considering the best path for the organization in each scenario (Khan, 2017). As such, “Adaptive leadership allows institutions to properly plan for change and consider many factors affecting the complex nature of the leadership relationship. … Adaptive leaders recognize the best solution to address problems based on current realities rather than actions based on the past..” (Khan, 2017, p.179-180). In combination, these two approaches can serve leaders well when leading through change.
In addition to these theories, leaders can consider digital leadership: “establishing direction, influencing others, and initiating sustainable change through the access of information, and establishing relationships in order to anticipate changes pivotal to school success in the future” (Sheninger, p.2). By addressing each of the seven pillars of digital leadership identified by Sheninger, including Communication and Re-envisioning Learning Spaces and Environments, leaders can create “sustainable change in programs, instruction, behaviours, and leadership practices, with technology as a pivotal element” (p.2).
In summary, there are many competencies (e.g. attributes) that make a leader successful in a digital environment and many theories to help them lead through change. To my mind, a focus on communication and empathy, as well as a commitment to planning and reflection, are key.
Castelli, P. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217-236.
Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A Brief Comparison. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(3).
McLean & Company (2016). Integrated Leadership. Retrieved from: https://hr.mcleanco.com/research/ss/integrated-leadership
Sheninger, E. (2014). Pillars of digital leadership. International Centre for Leadership in Education.