Five Leadership Rules for the Digital Age

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Here’s why I wrote this article: If leaders don’t know the rules, they won’t follow them. I believe that old models of leadership and leadership development have failed, and that the changes being brought on by the fourth industrial revolution are so important that they require rewriting the rules of leadership.

I’m not alone in these beliefs about leadership. There is a growing community of people like me, who feel “leaders” could use a little refresher course on what makes for good leadership.

For example, Klaus Schwab, Chairman and Founder of the World Economic Forum, has written a fine book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In his book, Schwab calls for “responsive and responsible” leadership for shaping the future of humanity. Schwab’s book is a wake-up call to leaders that essentially says, “Hey, the future is here and you boneheads better get your act together!” [my words, not Schwab’s].

Schwab’s argument is beautifully supported with reams of macro-economic data and thought-provoking anecdotes about technological advancements that are just around the corner and coming to an organization near you!

If you think the digital age is just about self-driving cars, drones, and curing diseases with nano medicine, you’re behind the curve. Industry 4.0 also brings economic risks, perils, and threats to humanity that we (i.e., leaders) have never had to deal with before in history.

These threats include things like deciding who gets to regulate the technology that allows for genetic editing, or which jobs should be saved from automation, or who should have access to basic services like education and healthcare. The decisions that leaders need to make around the issues inherent in the digital age have massive implications for the economy and society at large. Industry 4.0 decisions demand a different kind of leadership for the digital age.

Old Leadership Rules vs. New Leadership Rules

Rule #1: Do More with Different

Old leadership rules said, “Do more with less.” The second and third industrial revolutions were built on doing more with less. These economies were defined by production efficiency and effectiveness. Think assembly lines and the earliest of automated processes.

Leaders “Leaned” and “Six Sigmaed” their organizations every which way possible. But more with less didn’t stop technology from advancing. And more with less didn’t stop new disruptors like Airbnb and Uber from entering old markets like hospitality and transportation. More with less has run its course. More with less is no longer fit for fourth industrial revolution function. More with less is out. More with different is in.

Fourth industrial revolution leaders need to accept that in order to do more, they need to do different. Leadership’s job in the digital age is to empower, connect, and unleash the talents of their people so that they can do more by doing differently.

Leaders need to learn to do more with different. Do more diversity. Do more creativity. Do more innovation. Do more change. Do more flexibility, more coaching, more encouragement and support. Do more disrupting of your own business. Do more failing fast. Do more customer wowing. Do more learning. Do more by doing differently.

Rule #2: Be Present

I once had a client who said, “Half the job of executive leadership is just showing up.” The old rules of leadership said, “be untouchable” or “be distant.” Leaders achieved this “untouchable status” through layers of organizational structure between themselves and their workforce, as well as through cultural norms that they created.

In the old world, leaders had offices on the highest floor. These offices were in the farthest corner, and they were guarded by executive admins whose job it was to guard the door and the Outlook calendars of their beloved leaders. Okay, some leaders still have this set up.

But in essence, the old rules of leadership said, “be absent.” Leaders are so heavily scheduled that they work 20 hour days. They cross the globe on a weekly or monthly basis in their jets to meet with important shareholders, board members, and regulators. They often find themselves road weary and both physically and mentally absent.

The break-neck pace of the old reality has left little time for leaders to meet with the people in their organization who are closest to their customers. Ironically, these people usually have the best ideas for growth and innovation. These people also want purposeful work and to believe in something other than the fact that they work for a very high-powered group of men (usually white men) who are too busy to be present, and how don’t care to learn what they know.

The new rules of leadership say, “be present.” Being present means being present for yourself. It means attending to your own wellbeing. When you are present for yourself, then (and only then) can you be present for your family. Be present for your friends. Be present for your team. Be present for your employees. And be present for your customers and constituents.

This rule of being present means “showing up.” Just show up. Show up on the shop floor. Show up at the charity event. Show up when you’re not on the agenda to speak. Show up and listen. Show up and ask questions. Show up and learn. Show up and observe. Just show up!

Rule #3: Find Your Way

The old rules of leadership said “set direction.” Leaders from the Old School School of Leadership Development learned this very early on. Set direction. Communicate your vision. Set strategy. Stick to your strategy. Rally the troops. Charge the hill. Setting direction was viewed (and still is by some) as a sign of strength, and a sure bet for winning followership. Right? Wrong.

Industry 4.0 has change the rules about setting direction. You can’t just set direction by yourself and stick to it. The three-year plan might put you out of business, if you hold on to a losing strategy for too long. Leaders need to learn a new set of skills that are less about direction, and more about way finding.

Let me put it this way: If those men **or women** who are leading our corporations, institutions, and communities are the same ones fighting with their wives, husbands, or partners about stopping to ask for directions, the world is doomed! Come on guys, we’ve all had this fight. Even with Google Maps, it still happens.

Leaders need to learn how to “way find” if they want to be successful in the digital age. Way finding asks questions. Way finding is vulnerable. Way finding listens and takes notes from other experts. Way finding puts ego aside. Way finding asks for help. Way finding trusts other peoples’ directions.

If you’re struggling with learning how to way find, try this exercise. The next time you get off of an airplane in an unfamiliar city, and you need to get to a meeting, DON’T use your GPS. Instead stop and ask for directions. Find the nearest service station. Shake the hand of the mechanic or attendant. Admit that you are lost. And ask for help. Then sincerely thank the attendant, buy something from her, and be on your way. Then, on your drive, reflect on how that experience felt, what skills you used, and take those lessons learned back to your leadership role. That’s how you get better at way finding.

Rule #4: Be an Always-On Learner

The old rules of leadership said, “be an expert.” The new rules of leadership say, “be a learner.” Learning and development are game changers for the digital age. One of the books on my 2017 summer reading list was The Second Machine Age by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Brynjolfsson is the director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. The data that these authors present make a clear case that humans cannot keep pace with machines when it comes to learning. But humans can learn to work alongside and learn with computers in ways that are even more productive.

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Being an always-on learner means learning by doing. Leaders must get better at learning from experience.

Experiences shape how leaders think, how they observe and what they pay attention to, and how they behave. There are certain experiences that are more challenging and disruptive to a leaders’ learning. These critical experiences or breakthrough experiences result in important lessons learned.

As a rule, leaders should spend 70% of their time immersed in on-the-job learning, 20% in conversation discussing lessons learned, and 10% in formal learning. However, given the volume of “formal” learning available for free e.g., on, Youtube, podcasts, etc., leaders have to get smarter about when, where, and how they spend their time in formal learning. When leaders come across a helpful reading, insight, or lesson learned from experience, communities of experience and communities of practice will become an even more important vehicle for accelerating learning for leaders.

My advice for leaders is to experience things that they haven’t experienced before. Learn from personal experience. Learn from vicarious experiences by talking to others inside and outside of your circle. Join the right communities of practice, but also get outside of the same old circles that you travel in. Ask for help in curating new and relevant content to feed your internal learner. Get curious. Stay open to new ideas. Read broadly. Structure time for learning. Take time to keep your knowledge relevant and your skills sharp.

No one can know everything in the digital economy so sharing and creating new knowledge is everyone’s responsibility and an increasingly social activity.

Rule #5: Exercise Discernment

The last chapter in my forthcoming book on the future of leadership is about “Discernment.” The old rules of leadership said, “be decisive.” But decisions today are more complex than ever, so being decisive isn’t enough. The new rules of leading say, “be discerning.”

Discernment is derived from the Latin root, discernerewhich means “to sift or distinguish.”

Digital leadership requires discernment or sorting and sifting through all of the issues and data to figure out what an organization ought to do.

Many leaders and leadership teams struggle with making simple decisions. These same teams also struggle with implementing their decisions. When we add complexity, ethical implications, values, and collaboration into the equation of digital leadership, discernment quickly rises to the top as an essential skill and process for ensuring successful decisions. In order to make better decisions, and to successfully implement those decisions, digital leaders need to become more discerning.

How can digital leaders improve their discernment and in-the-moment judgement? It’s simple, they should follow the first four rules that I’ve outlined in this article. When digital leaders “do more with different,” when they are fully present, when they learn how to way find with a sense of humility and vulnerability, and when they remain open to new experiences and learning, they will have greater access to the information that they need to assess the effectiveness and impact of their decisions.

Make no mistake, discernment is not a catchall rule. Discernment is a process for ensuring that important business decisions are consistent with an organization’s values, purpose, and brand. Discernment requires participation and collaboration between different stakeholders. It requires transparent information sharing, and an ethic of genuine care and compassion.

Discernment is about doing the right things and doing things right at the same time. It requires humility, balance, openness and empathy, and, perhaps above all else, compassion.

A colleague of mine, Dr. Jane Dutton, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and her friend Monica Worline have made a compelling case for introducing compassion into business decisions. Their new book is called, Awakening compassion at work: The quiet power that elevates people and organizations.

Worline and Dutton define compassion as a “four-part process involving attention, interpretation of suffering, felt empathic concern, and action to alleviate suffering” (p. 8). While adding compassion to discernment processes may sound “soft,” these authors highlight several strategic business advantages associated with compassion at work, which include: financial resilience, profitability, employee engagement, and customer retention.

Bottom line: exercising discernment is good for business and good for humanity. Stop being decisive, and start being discerning.

Acting on the New Rules of Leadership

Future focused leaders know that the rules of the game have changed in the digital age. However, leaders need so much help in learning these new rules and how to effectively play by them. The fourth industrial revolution is a very high-stakes game that we’re playing. So leaders had better master these rules, and quickly!

New Rules of Leadership Summary: #1 Do more with different, #2 Be present, #3 Find your way, #4 Be an always-on learner, #5 Exercise discernment.

Here are some simple things that you can do to help yourself, and the leaders with whom you work, coach, advise, etc.

  1. Share this article with your clients, and ask them what they think about the new rules of leadership.
  2. Discuss the new rules of leadership with your leadership team. Are they aware of these rules? Do they already follow these rules?
  3. Explore how how the new rules apply to your business, organization, or community. What does your business demand of you as a leader in the digital age?
  4. Develop future leaders around these new rules of leading. Teach. Coach. Develop. Mentor. Advise. Help others learn these rules now.
  5. Create a workplace culture that encourages leaders to play by these rules. Don’t punish leaders for playing by the right rules for the digital age. Reward and recognize those who are playing by the new rules. Call a timeout when people are playing by the old rules.

If you found this article helpful, please leave a comment and tell me why or share with your social network. This topic is too important not to share! 

Chris Groscurth, Ph.D.

Chris Groscurth, Ph.D., is author of Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For the past 20 years he has worked as a researcher and strategic advisor to leaders across healthcare, finance, manufacturing, government and education. In addition to his consulting work, Chris addresses thousands of leaders annually through speaking engagements and workshops. Throughout his career, he has held leadership positions with Gallup, the University of Michigan, and Trinity Health. Chris currently leads Stryker's global learning design and development team, shaping the future of leadership in a high-growth medical technology company. Chris received his doctorate in human communication processes from the University of Georgia and has bachelor's and master's degrees in human communication studies from Western Michigan University.

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