The COVID-19 pandemic led to an period of intense digital transformation, across all firms. Everyone was in the market for new ways of working. As a result, firms struggled to develop individuals with digital leadership skills who could steer others through transformative changes. COVID-19 also had profound effects on our mental health. As a result, firms focused on improving the well-being of both managers and employees. Many used technology as a tool to enhance mental health.

Against this background, researchers have compiled a small but growing body of literature on the relationship between digital leadership and well-being. We would expect that people who score high on digital leadership skills would also score higher on well-being. Indeed, research suggests that this is correct.

The research on digital leadership

Historically, the topic of digital leadership has received little attention. Researchers viewed leadership skills and digital expertise as complementary domains. One covered soft skills, the other hard skills. However, this has changed in the past several years. As digital transformation reaches further into core business operations, digital leadership – a blend of IT knowledge and leadership ability – has attracted increased attention.

For example, we have evidence that better digital leadership can improve well-being. One group of researchers showed that higher digital leadership correlated with higher psychological well-being. One reason for this could be that lack of digital leadership leads to choice overload, where managers and employees feel overwhelmed with a constantly evolving digital ecosystem. Thus, that choice overload can reduce well-being. However, digital leaders are better able to manage choice overload and experience better well-being.

Another study looked into the skills that digital leaders most want. The researchers found that calmness and the skill to motivate others were most desired among managers. These two skills determine how a leader acts and is perceived when under pressure to deliver challenging results through others.

Therefore, this suggests that some digital leadership skills are more important to well-being than others. But which ones? Now, we know more about how digital leadership can lead to better well-being.

Digital leadership skills are more important than attitude and knowledge

A recent study on digital leadership looked further into the relationship with well-being. The researchers analyzed responses from 1,899 managers on their skills, their attitudes and knowledge, and their well-being.

In the research, examples of digital leadership skills include:

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

Examples of digital leadership attitudes and knowledge include:

  • Having fun using digital tools
  • Acting as a digital expert
  • Being up to date on digital knowledge

The authors found that digital leadership skills had a positive effect on the managers’ well-being. However, attitudes and knowledge had no effect.

In other words, improving digital leadership does improve managers’ well-being. It was the social skills (such as motivating others), rather than the cognitive skills (such as being up to date on digital knowledge) that lead to better well-being. Thus, the social aspect of digital leadership, in driving digital transformation, and motivating others, is what really makes a difference. Simply teaching managers about digital technologies does not impact well-being.

The takeaway for digital leaders

Today, every firm aspires to develop future digital leaders. Traditionally, firms have focused on teaching digital skills and making digital topics exciting. This research suggests that while important, improving individuals’ attitudes and knowledge about digital topics does not affect well-being.

Instead, those who excel in the social aspects of digital transformation, such as leading others and knowing the structures and processes to implement, enjoy a higher level of well-being. This could be because digital transformation is fundamentally about people, about how they work, and about how they spend their time. To increase well-being, firms should consider implementing managerial training programs that focus on these social digital skills.

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