Effective Digital Leadership: How Would You Order This List?

I was recently asked to put a list of leadership attributes in order of importance, first individually and then in a team of four.  Individually, I listed my top three attributes as: (1) competent, (2) intelligent, and (3) caring.  As a team, our top three were: (1) competent (2) supportive, and (3) intelligent.  Kouzes and Posner (2011) state, in a table of characteristics of admired leaders, that the top three characteristics selected by the highest percentage of people in 2010 were: (1) honest, (2) forward-looking, and (3) inspiring (Table 1.1).  Competent was fourth; intelligent was fifth.

In my opinion, many of the listed attributes are connected or overlap, or can be interpreted in multiple ways.  For example, being caring involves showing support and being fair-minded.  Also, someone who is ambitious is determined.  Someone who is straightforward is honest.  Certainly, the semantics of each attribute is open to interpretation.

Semantics aside, everyone places leadership attributes in varying orders of importance depending on one’s culture, environment, and life experiences.  Even individuals from the same family with similar life experiences may disagree on the order of attributes that make a great leader.

Regardless of how we order the list individually, I believe it is more important to consider the collective values of the team or group.  One cannot be a leader without followers.  As such, an effective leader must unite all members’ values.  A teacher, to be a good leader, must consider the values of his/her students.  A president of a company (or country), to be a good leader, must consider the values of his/her employees (or citizens), customers, and other stakeholders.

Thus, the challenge for leaders is to understand their followers’ values, to help guide their team to effectively attain the goals that the team set out to achieve.  This is unlikely to be easy or simple as “not all people share the same values….  [People] want different things, and that is the source of the disagreement, conflict, and misdirection that is rife in the world” (O’Toole, 2008, p. 2).  Acknowledging these differences, O’Toole (2008) identifies that the role of a leader is, therefore, “to create conditions in which people with different agendas can unite behind a common purpose” (p. 2).

Most of my experience as a leader, both in face-to-face and digital environments, has been in multicultural settings.  I have been a teacher and teacher trainer in multicultural schools around the globe.  Multicultural teams appear to be increasingly common as many organizations become more culturally diverse and globalization increases.  Digital environments have promoted multicultural teams to work together across the globe.  I was, therefore, pleased to read that Castelli (2015) states that two of her six key practices of reflective leadership are respecting diverse cultures and customs, and challenging beliefs and assumptions (p. 225).   In a multicultural setting, a good leader needs to understand and be open to his/her followers’ individual values, as well as the values of the followers’ cultures.  This may include an understanding of language, even among countries that speak the same language as word definitions and idioms can vary widely.  It may also include consideration of what and how to share on team collaborative tools, as well as social cues and expectations in synchronous settings.

Leadership in a face-to-face environment is challenging, but that challenge is heightened in a digital environment as teams often work in asynchronous environments without cues such as body language, tone of voice, and intonation.  I agree with Castelli (2015) that “focusing on external characteristics of leaders [such as knowledge, experience and intelligence] provides only a partial view of leadership” (p.218) and “internal characteristics such as critical thinking, long-term planning and finding innovative ways to solve problems with an equal force on people and profit” (p. 218) is invaluable to effective leadership.  Castelli states that reflective leadership “has seemingly been downplayed and oftentimes ignored in the realm of leadership and management” (p. 220).  This is unfortunate as it appears to fit well in our increasingly global and digital world.  Reflective leadership is defined as “the consistent practice of reflection, which involves conscious awareness of behaviours, situations and consequences with the goal of improving organizational performance” (p. 217).  A leader who looks beyond sales targets, spreadsheet numbers, or achievement outcomes to consciously reflect on the bigger picture of behaviours, situations, and consequences, appears to offer a more thoughtful and effective approach to our ever-changing, complex world.


Castelli, P. A. (2015). Reflective leadership review: A framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217-236. DOI:10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

O’Toole, J. (2008). Notes toward a definition of values-based leadership. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 1(1). Retrieved from https://scholar.valpo.edu/jvbl/vol1/iss1/10/

4 thoughts on “Effective Digital Leadership: How Would You Order This List?”

  1. Hi Sherry, thanks for your thoughts on working in cross-cultural settings. As you note, one way technology was changed our workspaces (and learning spaces!) is allowing for teams to work more globally, and I appreciated your focus on Castelli’s key practices such as respecting diverse cultures and customs, and challenging beliefs and assumptions. You provided a few specific examples, are there are some overarching strategies you think work well to create an inclusive and respectful environment? I think it is particularly challenging to create those spaces at a distance – particularly when you want to encourage people to feel comfortable challenging beliefs and long-held assumptions.

    1. Thank you for your response to my post, Michelle. I agree that it is challenging to create an inclusive and respectful work or learning environment, and that challenge is magnified when the environment is online. In my experience, there are many strategies that encourage inclusivity and respect. For example, the organization or team could establish policies or practices that encourage mindfulness of cultural differences. This may include learning what language and behaviour is appropriate or taboo (such as asking about one’s salary or family), recognizing and minimizing one’s biases (such as assuming a Western perspective), and showing genuine interest and appreciation of others’ cultures. Learning the correct spelling or pronunciation of someone’s name or a few words in their language can go a long way to showing empathy and respecting diversity. A leader must hold themselves and others accountable for learning and practicing the behaviour and language that encourages an inclusive and respectful environment.

  2. I agree that many of the attributes on the list we considered had similarities amongst them. As I was assigning my rankings, I found it challenging to pick between the ones I felt were so close that they could be synonyms. As I worked through the list, I found that I was able to separate the ones I thought of as the same (or close to it) and assign rankings to them that were not always close (e.g., caring is my number 2 and supportive is my number 6). When I took the time to focus on the list, I was able to see how they differed. Though, I do still think that much of the meanings behind these attributes comes from our own experiences.

    I also liked your point that leaders cannot be a leader without followers. The discrepancy in business and educational settings is that there is an automatic leader-follower affiliation by having bosses / employees and teachers / students. I agree with O’Toole’s statement of “the role of leaders is to help followers to focus on attaining ends that are good for them all”. Sometimes that means pushing forward to achieve the goal, and sometimes that means focusing on the relationships. I think that is true not matter the environment.


    O’Toole, J. (2008). Notes toward a definition of values-based leadership. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 1(1). Retrieved from https://scholar.valpo.edu/jvbl/vol1/iss1/10/

    1. Hi, Kathy. Thank you very much for your response! I agree that the role of leaders includes focusing on relationships. Castelli (2015) explains that transformational leadership “refers to the relationships established between the leader and followers” (p. 218). This is closely related to reflective leadership as both include building supportive relationships with followers (p. 218). A leader who does not have a supportive relationship with their followers is unlikely to have the trust and support of those individuals and is, thus, unlikely to effectively achieve the team’s goals.

      I also believe that effective leaders’ role includes building supportive relationships with his/her peers and others in the organization, such as upper management. It may extend to include other stakeholders such as clients or those external to the organization, such as parents (for a teacher). A leader cannot be successful in isolation; supportive relationships are key!

      Castelli, P. A. (2015). Reflective leadership review: A framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217-236. DOI:10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

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