Steering Leadership in the Digital Era: Adapting to Change and Embracing Ethical Leadership – ARTICLE OF THE WEEK – Issue 234 – April 2024

Steering Leadership in the Digital Era: Adapting to Change and Embracing Ethical Leadership – ARTICLE OF THE WEEK – Issue 234 – April 2024

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness while others have greatness forced upon them,” is as true today as it was in 1602 when the comedy was first performed. This is still the case for leaders now – with the modern-day proviso that their ‘greatness’ is not born in the conventional sense – but borne out of the context and the economic and political climate they find themselves in – and, more importantly, how they adapt to rapid change.

Although the political ambition to level up the UK may have faltered the Government decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2, for example – it’s otherwise full steam ahead for a UK plc seeking to future-proof its people and performance through succession planning, a constant business imperative of not putting all your eggs in one basket when it comes to recruitment and retention, maintaining a healthy pipeline and identifying and training the strategic leaders of tomorrow. In short, it is a levelling up of different leaders with wider skillsets and a focus on the main idea that greatness is not the gift of one person or a fixed trait, but a dynamic and adaptive process that depends on the situations and needs of the business. Whether it is attempting to steady the ship in a storm as in Act 1 of Twelfth Night or ‘steady as you go’ in terms of inspiring the day-to-day business agenda. It goes beyond personal charisma – good leadership is about how they adapt to the conditions they find themselves in. A good example of this would have been Winston Churchill who was a strong and charismatic war leader. Many assumed he would sweep back to power in the General Election of 1945 due to his personal popularity and an outstanding war record. However, he was defeated by a landslide Labour victory because the situation had shifted and there was no longer a need for his type of leadership in a post-war Britain, that was increasingly focused on building the kind of social and economic consensus that would lead to the development of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Now, businesses are looking to recruit and retain the next generation of leaders by providing support and training that enables them to transition to the next level so that they have the expertise, an end-to-end understanding of the organisation and a broad knowledge of the key discipline required and a highly effective approach to decision-making. You can’t teach charisma, but you can accelerate personal transformation and the understanding of context – when to step up and when to step back to allow others to take the lead. Levelling up on talent broadens the potential of the business. It widens the perspective of those with leadership potential by stretching their strategic thinking and providing the tools to develop different mindsets and problem-solving so that they emerge as highly effective and rounded leaders that can identify strengths and weaknesses, micro and macro challenges and how to transform threats into opportunities – whether your personality is chilled or Churchillian. But going back to an earlier point, how do you first identify leadership talent and furthermore, show them how to navigate a business world where change is the only constant and strategies from marketing to recruitment and retention are seemingly in conflict with the attention span of an increasingly fragmented demographic? How do you gel with Gen Z or understand how the TikTok generation tick? How does a previously analogue world embrace today’s digital reality, where customer insights are increasingly manifested in millions of moving pictures, rather than written reviews? Such nimble navigation requires leadership that has probably not existed before, the kind where the focus is on people, planet and ethics, rather than ego and where ‘doing the right thing’ for the organisation aligns with a greater good, as exemplified by broader ESG principles, rather than the idiosyncrasy of the individual.

The management model advocated by consultant Peter Drucker was that: “Good leaders ask what needs to be done and what’s right for the organisation, not what I want to do.” The ability to pivot in response to new challenges and opportunities, from digital disruption to ESG concerns, defines effective leadership. ESG also plays an increasingly important role in the modern leadership debate as it requires those in charge or aspiring to greatness to adapt to changes on a macro and micro-economic level in terms of a business response to climate change, diversity and inclusion and transparency. Indeed, good leadership creates a sense of belonging in a changing world where recruitment, retention and investment are not only based upon lean and green principles but a growing and shared sense of belonging and adoption or more ethical values. This less egocentric approach is not only more representative of the Gen Z candidates that businesses are seeking to recruit and retain. There is also a new generation of ethical investor looking for C-suite strategies that promote positive diversity and inclusion, as well as sustainability in their daily operations through the active reduction of negative impacts such as excessive carbon emissions or wastage, for example.

In the digital era, leaders are tasked with harnessing technology, not just for operational efficiency, but as a catalyst for transformation. Modern greatness must embrace agility over fragility in the use of technology to harness the data-rich insights presented by a fragmented social media landscape, where the audio-visual (AV) ‘likes’ and heated hashtags can better inform a business’s understanding of customers it seeks to serve. Leaders should leverage technologies such as Artificial Empathy (AE), an emergent f ield within AI, to extract and interpret nuanced intelligence related to preferences that remain largely untapped in what could be termed as an ‘audio visual afterlife’. Businesses are missing out on the opportunities to use this information to gain better customer insights, understand customer preference, improve customer experience, discover unmet needs and optimise marketing effectiveness, the challenge for which is beyond human endeavour, but within the remit of AI. In one minute, there are about 700,000 hours of videos watched and 500 hours of videos uploaded on YouTube, 243,000 photos uploaded on Facebook and 400,000 hours of music listened to on Spotify. It’s simply impossible for human beings to process this amount of information, which is why a new kind of leadership is the key to better co-ordination through the harnessing of new technology. With the increasing use of online channels in the business sector, more customer interactions happen in an environment where firms have less control. The access to audio visual (AV) data and analytical tools not only gives the firms ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’, but also the ‘keys’ to unlock the benefits of analytics-based decision making.

T he main objective of AV data analytics is to convert audio or visual data into a structured form to extract useful information. Consumers sharing their profiles, experiences and thoughts in the forms of images and videos on social media platforms – such as Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Flickr – are also particularly valuable. For example, the images or video posted by a customer about their experience in a hotel can be more revealing about their preferences than just a rating. Executive education programmes must therefore be tailored for both the Churchillian and the change managers – those new leaders of tomorrow – who may not be necessarily charismatic – but are clued up, caring and competent enough to ensure they are fully attuned to both ESG principles and how they chime with their organisation’s immediate and future needs. These leaders require the critical reasoning tools to understand when to allow AI to do the heavy lifting, particularly in the realm of digital data democratisation and possess the ability to tap into the rich tapestry of AE and behavioural economics as presented by the endless streams of AV content that are simply a swipe or a ‘like’ away.


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