How to develop digital leadership capability

Steve Hearsum (Roffey Park Institute, Horsham, UK)

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 12 October 2015



Hearsum, S. (2015), "How to develop digital leadership capability", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 14 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

How to develop digital leadership capability

Article Type: How to … From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 14, Issue 5

Steve Hearsum

Steve Hearsum is Development Consultant at Roffey Park Institute, Horsham, UK.

Apologies if I have lured you in with the title because it’s inherently absurd to suggest that “Digital Leadership Capability” is something we have sufficient collective agreement on. The term “digital” in this context is socially constructed and has no commonly agreed meaning.

A dictionary definition typically tells you “digital” refers to 0’s and 1’s or some form of signalling which has little to do with what it’s being used for in leadership and organisational development terms. I regularly ask groups what they understand by the term. One group of OD practitioners came up with the following, at a session I ran at the OD Network Europe conference this year:

That compares to this more recent one, from the participants on the Roffey Park Leading in a Digital Age programme:

Imagine not defining “culture” or “vision” or asking people to develop leadership behaviours without telling them which ones or the underlying assumptions. You just wouldn’t.

1. Define the terms and underlying assumptions around digital in your specific context

Pulley and Sessa (2002) argue “technology is intensifying a number of paradoxes that are stretching leader’s capacities” and the implications of these in terms of capability are still valid:

Swift and mindful: The increase in speed of everything that happens in increasingly connected organisations compromises the quality of decision-making, eroding the benefit of the time efficiencies.

Individual and community: More digital interaction reduces human contact and thus social cohesion, as well as increasing isolation.

Top-down and grassroots: Digital places huge pressure on organisations that are hierarchically structured. The more rigid the design, the greater the tendency and ease that voices can be heard from any level in the organisation. That means the voices from below are audible – and ignored at your peril. The relationship is fundamentally changed, whether you intended it to be or not.

Details and big picture: Even more data may be useful, but it eats time. How to get the balance right?

Flexible and steady: Change in organisations was arguably never linear. Digital technology amplifies that pattern. As a digital agency said to an OD Practitioner in a story I heard: “We have to be liquid because flexible is too rigid”.

Figure 1

Figure 2

2. Accept you’re working with irreconcilable polarities that you can manage but not resolve

So what’s different?

More than anything, the core competencies of digital leaders have much in common with skilled leaders of organisational change. I make a distinction here: I am not talking about change management, which too often is project management with go-faster stripes. I mean skilled facilitators and leaders of organisational, people and cultural transformation.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel – digital leadership is allied to change leadership

Too much of what is written about digital and leadership – and especially when they are mentioned in the same sentence – smacks of certainty, a “I-have-the-answer-to-your-problems-so-hear-my-cleverness”. It is deluded.

I can offer you a list of what I think the key leadership capabilities are based on my work at Roffey Park, my anecdotal experience, what I’ve gleaned from conversations with clients, leadership and OD practitioners, people who have “digital” in their job title and others.

So here’s my list of key digital leadership capabilities:

Adaptability: In the true sense of the word and as in able to adjust to new conditions. Lots. Often. Appropriately.

Collaborative: Getting the balance between support and challenge, a willingness to work with and challenge colleagues, whatever their level, appropriately.

Innovative: Being willing to take risks, and fail, and learn.

User-centred: Understand that customers and clients, if not now then soon, are likely to become users. That is a difference that makes a difference.

Self and other awareness: Know yourself, is willing to learn, aware of personal impact and others.

Systemic intelligence: A biggie! Understands that organisations are human systems, and can see, navigate and influence the patterns of behaviour and conversation.

Protects voices from below (hat tip to Heifitz and Laurie’s Adaptive Leadership): With lots going on can allow people at all levels to speak, even if you disagree. They know stuff you don’t.

Understands the difference between digital (technology) and digital (culture).

Technology: An understanding of technology as it applies to your context.

Pace awareness: Understand the concept of “appropriate pace”. Pace does not equal fast. Yes, digital and social technologies speeds stuff up, but the challenge is to know when to slow things down. Speed is overrated.

And there are a few qualities that will help too, including humility – you will get it wrong and when you do, own it, compassion – for yourself and for others – and humour, because maybe we all need to stop taking this all so seriously?

Corresponding author

Steve Hearsum can be contacted at:

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