April 2, 2015

Advancement in digital technologies has disrupted everything, including leadership styles, according to Barry Libert, Jerry Wind and Megan Beck Fenley. Employees want more ownershiprather than to follow instruction; customers want to participate in the marketing and development process; and leaders are finding that open and agile organizations are able to maneuver more effectively than organizations where “all insight and direction comes from the top. In short, the autocratic Commander, whether brilliant or misguided, just won’t cut it anymore,” they write in this opinion piece.

History is full of great Commanders. The stories of General Patton commanding his troops before D-Day, Steve Ballmer yelling at his employees to “get on their feet” at a Microsoft event, and Jack Welch berating his people as he barked his orders “straight from his gut” are all well documented. These leaders accomplished great things and relied heavily on a “Command and Control” style of leadership. However, leadership preferences are evolving in parallel with a number of market and cultural shifts. Their successors, General Colin Powell, Jeff Immelt (GE) and Satya Nadella (Microsoft), as well as a host of other executives like Tony Hseigh of Zappos or Marc Benioff of salesforce.com, more often take on the role of Collaborator or Co-Creator, rather than Commander. And for good reason: These less autocratic leadership styles resonate with today’s empowered, connected and skeptical customers and employees — often leading to increased innovation, loyalty, profit and growth. Twitter 

So what has changed in the last 20-30 years to require new ways of leading? Technological advancement has created a ripple effect that is transforming the market. Today’s digital technologies — social, cloud, big data analytics, mobile and the Internet of everything — have created new, intangible, sources of value, such as relationships and information that are delivered by new business models. Along with the new sources of value, customers and employees’ wants and needs have evolved as digital technologies have created new ways of interacting with businesses. Attracting, satisfying and retaining these connected and savvy stakeholders requires leaders to learn some new tricks — but there are rewards. Businesses and leaders that adapt to this new environment see economic payout with higher profit, growth and valuations, and more (see our earlier article in Knowledge@Wharton, Why Businesses Should Serve Consumers’ ‘Higher Needs’

new leadership styles 

So what is a leader to do given this new digitally enabled and hyper-connected environment? Employees and freelancers (such as Apple’s developer community) want ownership, impact and recognition, rather than to follow instruction. Customers want to participate in the marketing and development process (witness how consumer/business relationships have grown on social media and the rise of crowdsourcing businesses like Victors and Spoils), rather than be told what they want and why. Leaders are finding that open and agile organizations are able to respond faster and more effectively to these developments than organizations where all insight and direction comes from the top. In short, the autocratic Commander, whether brilliant or misguided, just won’t cut it anymore. Leaders need a broader range of style options to match the broader range of assets companies are creating today.

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