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Leadership and Digital Leadership are Becoming One and the Same – research commentary

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom behind America’s Affordable Care Act (more commonly referred to as ‘Obamacare’), we can probably all agree on one thing. The roll-out of the web site and related health insurance services was hugely embarrassing. It was pretty much a textbook case of how not to manage a large-scale technology-enabled project.

Digital Leadership

Our hypothesis is that as business and IT become ever more inseparable, these two terms will become increasingly synonymous.

Recently, we have been thinking about the differences between leadership and digital leadership. Our hypothesis is that as business and IT become ever more inseparable, these two terms will become increasingly synonymous. Future business leaders will need to be able to steer complex technology-based initiatives, just as future technology leadership will require communication and managerial skills traditionally more associated with business executives than IT professionals. The Obamacare debacle reminds us that both sides have a great deal to learn.

We have recently held a number of interesting workshops with senior non-IT executives where we have sought to help them understand what it means to be a digital business leader. In these sessions, we have stressed that digital leadership differs from traditional leadership in many ways, especially the seven listed below:


Consumerization and cloud computing are pushing the IT centre of gravity outside the walls of the firm. Future digital business leaders will need a first-hand feel for external technology trends and innovations.

Data-driven decisions

As businesses become more connected, information is increasingly coming directly from the customer and the marketplace in real time. Firms ignore these ever-richer streams of business intelligence at their peril.

Silo busting

New ways of working almost inevitably span entrenched organizational boundaries. Digital leaders must be able to drive major changes across existing fiefdoms.

Agile, iterative change

The most advanced firms are moving toward continuous deployment operations where the underlying technologies constantly improve, but the changes are largely transparent and intuitive to the customer.

Open communities and ecosystems

The internet runs on open source software and is managed by open governance processes. These dynamics are now spreading beyond the IT industry, and must be embraced by the next generation of business/IT leaders.

Personal usage

Executives who use IT in their own lives will have significant advantages in developing a feel for today’s digital technology dynamics.

Continual, double-deep learning

As technology progress will continue to be relentless, ongoing learning is required. Those executives and employees with double-deep skills (knowing both their job and the relevant IT) will remain in the most demand.

Even a cursory review shows that when it came to the ACA, the Obama administration essentially did none of these things. The overall process was secretive and internal; little data was available on how things were going; there were a great many contractors each working within their own narrow silo; the system was rolled out all at once with little testing and iteration, and the larger healthcare ecosystem was not brought in until after the initial roll-out had clearly failed. While people within the IT community saw the problems, no one ever really spoke up.

Perhaps most striking was the lack of personal involvement by senior administration officials (the President included) in the oversight of the project. When asked about what went wrong or what was needed to fix things, the administration’s response pretty much boiled down to “How should I know, I don’t write code”, as if personally writing software is what managing large technology initiatives is all about. It quickly became obvious that none of the senior government officials had any real knowledge of the work being done in their name, and this was perhaps the most damaging revelation of all.

Shortcomings in the seven areas listed above are found to various degrees in most traditional organizations, and often lead to similar, if less high-profile, problems.

We revisit this painful history not to bash the administration. There are plenty of others doing that. Rather, we think the Obamacare example should be used as a warning to others. From our experience, shortcomings in the seven areas listed above are found to various degrees in most traditional organizations, and often lead to similar, if less high-profile, problems. As one of our clients said after looking at our Digital Business Leadership requirements: “This is scary; we don’t do any of these things.”

In our technology-driven future, leadership and digital leadership will increasingly need to become one and the same; but in most firms, the gap is still dangerously wide.

Digital Leadership in the C-Suite - Executive Summary now available for free download. 

In August 2014, our report, Leadership and Digital Leadership are Becoming One and the Same, identified the most important sources of digital leadership advantage and described the many ways in which digital leadership differs significantly from traditional business leadership. This report is the result of our second phase of digital leadership research, which explores the Digital drama now unfolding within the senior ranks of the firm. The objective is to provide CEOs and other C-suite members with options, recommendations and actions with which to develop the digital leadership needed at the highest levels of their organizations.

Download now.


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Research Commentary

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