As I sat down to write this post on digital leadership I found myself in two worlds. On the one hand, I am an educator at a technical institution. I teach an entry-level trades program, an apprenticeship program, and an entrepreneurship course at the institute. I have a passion for education and love my students and my job. On the other hand, I am a campaign manager for a small marketing start-up, which is mostly done remotely on nights and weekends. Most work is done through slack and Google Docs. One day a week I go into the office to meet with the team face to face.
When prompted to write about how would I describe my approach to leadership I was torn whether to write about the educational side of my life or the business side. Surely in two very different industries, I would have two different leadership styles, wouldn’t I? When thinking about my position in education I resonated with Sheniger ( 2014), “ Digital leadership can thus be defined as 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” (p.2). When teaching and working in the educational sector, I am helping my students prepare for futures and industries that may not even yet exist. This seemed very different from my teaching job of making sure content is written properly, images matched blog posts, and that clients were happy with the curation of social media. Sure there was a difference in the industry and the type of work done but I found that the way I would conduct myself with my students is not very different than how I work with my team at the marketing startup.
As I combed through the readings over and over again I was looking for a common theme that I could tie together in my leadership “style”. I connected with O’Toole (2008) as he discussed values-based leadership, yet like him, I would struggle with how to define the whole concept. As he states “there may be a definition of Values-Based Leadership, but I must admit I can’t put my finger on it” (p.7). The closest I could come to a definition is Simon Sinek’s concept of “Start with Why” (2009). This blog post does not have enough room for me to unpack all that Sinek discusses with the concept of finding the WHY. To get a small taste you can watch his Ted Talk here. In my attempt to summarize it goes like this; most leaders will know what they do, they know how they do it, not all leaders know why they do it. Sinek (2009) talks of how important it is for a leader to understand what their WHY is; “ As a company grows, the CEO’s job is to personify the WHY. To ooze of it. To talk about it. To preach it. To be a symbol of what the company believes” (p.157).
As I started to unpack all of this I started to find a theme. Reflection. If I am to discover what my WHY is, if I am to connect with my team, I will have to embrace a reflective leadership style. Castelli (2016) defines Reflective leadership as, “the consistent practice of reflection, which involves conscious awareness of behaviours, situations and consequences with the goal of improving organizational performance” (p.217). When it comes down to it, whether I am in a leadership position in an educational setting or business setting, a good leader must be able to reflect. As Kouzes and Posner (2017) state in their book “The leadership challenge”,
Leaders are self-aware. He says that highly successful leaders have an inner voice that they pay attention to. This insight provides them with an understanding of their strengths, their limitations, their biases, and their motivations. This understanding provides them with a deep well of energy and passion that they are constantly drawing upon throughout their lives in their quest to make extraordinary things happen. (p.59)
I would build upon what Kouzes and Posner by speculating that a self-aware leader is also aware of those on their team. Not only would they reflect on themselves but they would also reflect on their teams; strengths, limitations, biases and motivations.
One of the questions asked of us is was which theory of leadership do I think works best in leading change in a digital environment. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if it is a face to face environment or a digital environment, leadership has to begin from within and with reflective practice. There are some digital tools that may make a difference in how we communicate with our teams yet when we lead we are still leading people. It doesn’t make a difference if they are behind a screen or across a desk. We need to find ways to motivate and to guide. As Simon Sinek posits, it all starts with finding our defining values, our WHY. From that point, a leader must be mindful of themselves and their team. Through a reflective practice, this can be accomplished whether your team is down the hall, somewhere in the building, or across the world.
Castelli, P. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217-236.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
O’Toole, James (2008). Notes Toward a Definition of Values-Based Leadership. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 1(1).
Sinek, S. (2013). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. London: Portfolio/Penguin.