The topic of developing a digital leader is hot in today’s business press.

Companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Uber, and Microsoft have transformed our lives. They offer new business models, with better customer experiences and improved operations, compared to their traditional competitors.

Strong, visionary digital leaders made these companies possible. The benefits of digital leadership are profound. A joint MIT-Capgemini study found that companies with strong digital leadership are 26% more profitable than average, whereas those with weak digital leadership are 24% less profitable than average.

Moreover, the benefits extend beyond the company to employees. There is evidence that better digital leader can improve well-being.

A digital leader in action

Digital leadership is the mix of communication skills, organization skills, and technical skills that help others deal with rapid technological change.

Many articles have emphasized the importance of leadership skills on mental well-being. One study found that 25% of managers suffer from poor well-being. Now, managers must contend with the challenges of leading others through a changing digital landscape, while adapting to new digital tools themselves.

Thus, digital leadership has become a strategic issue for many companies. In response, numerous articles offer recommendations both on developing digital leadership and on improving well-being. However, most advice on digital leadership remains anecdotal. While personal advice may have its merits, anecdotes have their limits.

Instead, we can find more reliable recommendations from research on how better digital leadership can improve managers’ well-being. There are three pieces of advice for digital leaders:

  • Learn how to drive digital change
  • Better manage choice overload
  • Focus on developing calmness and motivating others

A company’s management development program should focus on these three areas for its next generation of digital leaders.

Learn how to drive digital change

Continuous learning in the workplace has become the norm for individuals who want to stay ahead. Thus, many firms have established digital learning programs. But what should their focus be?

Suppose you devote an hour every day to developing digital leadership. Should you focus on your digital savviness, learning about the latest tools and trends? Or should you focus on driving digital change, learning about the structures and processes that are needed for digital transformation.

A recent study on digital leadership skills explored how these two dimensions affect well-being. The authors found that knowing how to drive digital change is correlated with increased well-being, but digital savviness is not.

Thus, training managers on the structures and processes needed for digital transformation could improve their individual well-being, while training to improve digital literacy may not. Therefore, manager development programs should prioritize skills such as:

  • Being able to drive digital transformation
  • Making others enthusiastic about digital transformation
  • Knowing what it takes to execute digital transformation

Now, companies still need digitally savvy leaders. However, HR leaders should consider hiring for digital savviness, and then building training programs on implementing processes for digital transformation.

Better manage choice overload

From chatbots to social media, to the cloud, smart devices, and crypto, there is no shortage of options for digital distraction. All those technological choices cause digital stress. In addition, managers are under enormous pressure to transform existing businesses through technology.

As new technologies emerge, managers need to choose the right tools to fit their needs, while dealing with the pressure of everyday business challenges. Meanwhile, new software companies offering new tools bombard managers with new requests. They promise the latest panaceas to modern business problems.

In one study, researchers examined the effects of choice overload and pressures from digitization. They found that choice overload correlated with negative well-being, whereas pressure from digitization had no effect.

Therefore, digital leaders should learn to better manage choice overload, in order to reduce digital stress and to improve workplace well-being. For example, an external digital strategy consultant can offer best practices in technology selection and implementation.

Many companies choose to invite an expert with experience on leading practices from similar technology programs. Rather than asking your team to learn on the job, inviting an external expert can narrow the realm of possibilities and chart the best path forward, based on previous experience.

Focus on developing calmness and on motivating others

So far, we have discussed topics that researchers chose to explore. We can also examine the skills that are most in-demand. One recent study surveyed managers on the skills they valued most.

First, they found that IT domain knowledge is important. IT expertise helps with personnel development and with enabling change. IT-savvy executives can better create an open environment where employees embrace technology. However, the authors showed that the two skills that executives valued most are calmness and the ability to motivate others.

Calmness determines how employees perceive a manager’s leadership. It demonstrates the ability to slow down to process information, allowing a leader to manage choice overload and to implement processes to drive digital change.

Next, motivating others is a core leadership skill. It is correlated with the ability to help others cope with the stress of digital transformation. And it has become more important in dealing with disruptive technologies and a changing digital landscape.

Therefore, training programs for digital leaders should include development on maintaining calmness and the ability to motivate others. Offering training on the skills that leaders most value can increase training effectiveness.

Developing the next generation of digital leader programs

Digital training on new technologies remains an important part of many IT departments and leadership development programs. Moreover, it is important that training programs can also improve managers’ well-being.

In summary, the research on digital leadership and well-being suggests that our next generation of digital leaders should learn how to drive digital change, better manage choice overload, and focus on developing calmness and on motivating others. Therefore, digital training programs for managers should focus on developing these skills.


David Zhao

David Zhao is managing director of Coda Strategy, a consulting firm that works with digital leaders to execute business strategy through analytics and automation. He has guided numerous organizations through the design and implementation of complex digital transformation programs.

1 Comment

What A Great Digital Strategy Consultant Should Really Be Doing · October 5, 2022 at 6:18 am

[…] develop the digital leadership skills required to lead. Beyond formulating the theory, the most difficult challenges in digital strategy […]

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