It may seem ironic that in a workplace experiencing ever-increasing digitization, it is the human qualities of leaders that appear to make the most difference.

Never underestimate the power of human connection in a digital workplace.

This is not to say that leaders don’t have to worry about learning new technologies, because everyone does. It means that the human element to leadership, the things that can’t be made into an algorithm, are if anything more important in the digital workplace than they were in pre-digital times.

There are many reasons for this. Before digitization, people were forced to interact with each other directly. Assignments for the typical desk worker arrived in their office mailbox or were verbally given during meetings rather than arriving via email or on digital calendars. The look on a supervisor’s face when they took the first look at a report or graph conveyed a lot about how well work was received.

Today’s teams are often geographically scattered and communicate electronically much of the time. Yet it’s still important to know there is an actual human overseeing things, and that clients have faces and names. In other words, leadership today requires having strong human-to-human skills – perhaps more than ever.

Resistance to Digitization Is Futile

Digitization won’t stop and trying to prevent it from encroaching on processes that have traditionally been manual only leads to problems. People are used to using digital technology around the clock, in their personal lives as well as at work, and insistence on manual or antiquated processes can lead to “shadow IT,” where employees use their own technology to get things done faster. While this can be a good thing, it can also be bad, particularly in terms of network security. Digitization and automation initiatives may receive some push-back from less technically-oriented employees, but avoiding digitization and automation ultimately leads to worse outcomes.

From “Command and Control” to “Influence”

Leadership coaching programs in the old days were predicated on a “command and control” leadership structure. Command and control may have a place in some leadership decisions, but the many startups that have exploded with growth in recent years indicate that leadership based on influence is more powerful in today’s workforce.

Strong communication skills, excellent emotional intelligence, and good critical thinking skills are emerging as the best leadership skills to have in an age of digital disruption, as newer titans like Google have found. Consequently, businesses must develop new leadership performance measures for work environments that are more collaborative, experimental, and risk-tolerant.

New performance measures may be needed to accommodate new leadership and work styles.

There is no “There” There

Leadership development programs today must not promote the idea that leadership ability is something you achieve and then possess for all time. As technology continues to evolve, so too will strong leaders continue to evolve. Obtaining a corner office and resting on laurels may have worked fifty years ago, but not today. Leadership in a digital world of business has no endpoint, and leaders must not pursue leadership thinking that once they reach a certain level that no further development will be required of them.

Trustworthiness, Transparency, Honesty, Compassion Eternally Important

But while execution of leadership may be different today (and different again tomorrow), the fundamental qualities that all great leaders have to remain constant. A leader who has all the digital skills in the world, and who embraces technological change while forgetting about trustworthiness, transparency, honesty, and compassion won’t last.

It’s important that today’s leadership development programs differentiate between what is constant (like the aforementioned qualities) and what is changing (essentially everything else), and prepare leaders for roles where continuous learning and continual improvement of vital skills like communication are the norms.

The increasingly digital and automated workforce relies on the human nature of leadership perhaps more than ever. Teams may be physically scattered, and they may rely on computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence to be able to do their work, but that doesn’t mean they can be completely divorced from the humanity of the workplace.

The leaders who best understand this, who commit to maintaining the bedrock human characteristics of strong leaders while embracing technology, are the ones who are best positioned for long-term success – both for themselves and their organizations.

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