Digital Leadership – guidance in digital times

Guest contribution by | 22.10.2018

Suddenly there was this term: “Digital Leadership”. After the buzzwords “digitisation” and “digital transformation”, the next one is Digital Leadership and with it the question: do we need a new way of leading, a new model to guide us through the digital transformation?

Everyone is talking about change: whether in terms of digital transformation processes, changes within organisational processes or in the private environment, the multitude of possibilities to shape life. In addition, our service society with its high degree of civilization rarely cares about basic needs such as food procurement. According to Maslow, we are thus at a higher level of the needs pyramid; we are increasingly concerned with meaning and effectiveness. Feeling accelerates our life and our everyday life. We experience a variety of different relationships, which we maintain through communication. The technologisation and flexibilisation of our working world is blurring the boundaries between professional and private life. What does this do to you as a manager or even employee of a company?​

The new understanding of leadership

Leadership in digital times? Why should leadership change in the course of digitalisation? Or as one colleague recently said, “It’s just old wine in new bottles anyway.” Well, that may be. From a systemic point of view, however, a movement in a changing context means that individual parts have to get a little out of their familiar structure and have to find a new way of coming together. In such a situation you can of course try to restore the old and familiar. Or you can try to find a new order, which might even work better than the previous one. Changes occur when there was a shortage, scarcity or suffering before. What is it like in your company? Do you feel a shortage? What is your current economic situation? How satisfied are your customers? How committed and innovative are your competitors? How satisfied are your employees? How high is the current absenteeism rate of your employees? What about the fluctuation, the changeability of your employees? How easily do you succeed in filling vacancies? Have you already thought about the influence your (leadership) behaviour has on the current developments of your company?

In my daily work as a systemic consultant, I often see that the willingness for self-reflection enables a change of perspective. Therefore, please understand my remarks as a suggestion as to how you can shape the working world of the future and the cultural change in your company through your behavior or, in particular, through your attitude. Use the digital transformation to question and critically examine your previous understanding of leadership.

Are you prepared for the future?

Basically, a company is all about achieving economic goals. In some companies, the trend of the social enterprise can be seen in addition. Not only economic but also sustainable action is becoming increasingly important. Due to globalisation and digitalisation, the market is becoming increasingly larger and market activities are experiencing a considerable acceleration. Are you currently able to ensure with your entrepreneurial activities that you are prepared for the future, which has perhaps already begun, and that you are able to compete effectively? I am not only interested in the products and services you offer on the market, but also in the market for skilled workers. Your employees are the force that enables you to satisfy your customers and provide a good product or service. How can you strengthen or encourage them to achieve exactly that?

Studies such as the Roman Herzog Institute’s study on satisfaction or happiness¹ show that it is generally important for people that their work does not affect their health and is compatible with family life, that professional autonomy is possible, that there is trust within the company as well as flexibility and that job security is predictable. In my workshops and team reflections, the importance of having fun at work, cohesion among colleagues and the relationship with superiors is also repeatedly demonstrated how important it is for good and productive cooperation.

Often in forums on the working world of the future, the manager is spoken of as a framework and signpost, sometimes even as a coach. I would vehemently disagree with coach. A coach and coachee have a neutral relationship at eye level. The coach is responsible for the process, the coachee for the solution. However, a superior and an employee have a relationship of dependence. The employee is currently still assessed by the superior and often the superior has a considerable influence on the amount of the employee’s salary. If one understands a coach as a companion, sparring partner or pilot in the execution of the activities and with regard to the company goals, I agree.

Purpose and effectiveness

How important are purpose and effectiveness to you? In many discussions, employees communicate that the purpose of their professional activity and entrepreneurial action are becoming increasingly important to them. A large number of employees want to be effective not only in their private lives but also in their professional lives and see what contribution they make to the big picture. Simon Sinek’s book “The Golden Circle” wonderfully shows what we are striving for and the question that one automatically asks oneself after reading it: what is your “Why”? Why do you get up every day and enter your workplace? But how do you, as a manager or entrepreneur, meet the challenge of creating a suitable working environment for all employees? How do you meet these demands? In real business practice there is neither a general instruction nor a manual for this.

Implement feedback and error tolerance

If you ask yourself this question “How can I become a good leader in digital times”, it might be helpful to start by questioning what constitutes good leadership for you personally, and then next sit down with your employees and get feedback. Yes, you have read correctly. Feedback from your employees. Ask, process and reflect again. That takes a lot, especially courage. Even in Kaizen, an attitude was striven for that makes it possible not to look for the guilty party when making mistakes, but to describe mistakes in a value-free way and to see them as an opportunity for improvement. When was the last time you asked your employees what you could improve in terms of their cooperation? Not what is going badly, but rather asked in a solution-oriented way what could go even better? In agile working methods such as Scrum, there are firmly established meetings like the so-called retrospective, which makes exactly this the topic:

  • “What went well?”
  • “What could go better?”
  • “What does it take?”

These three questions guide each round of reflection. I very much appreciate the image of the joint design of a company, managers show the way, are part of the travel group, employees question friendly and critically on this journey, whether it is still the right way or whether one should take one or the other turnoff. The idea behind this is to become even better together. A nice approach.

The leadership of employees

In the new work scene, it is sometimes said that the goal is to find employees who perform the tasks at hand even better than you do, in order to achieve the best result for the overall system. This attitude is very different from that of the manager, who appreciates hierarchy and power. Every manager should consider for himself whether he can and wants to adopt such an attitude. In practice, there are also many employees who are used to being given tasks, presenting results again and again and being able to do a good job in a more externally determined manner. Here, sensitivity, empathy and a sense of proportion are required from the respective manager in order to sound out a good measure of personal responsibility and external determination for the organisation, the team and the people concerned under changing conditions.

“Values cannot be taught, they can only be exemplified.” Viktor Frankel once said. So how can you succeed in accompanying your employees and yourself well on the path of digitisation? Be aware of your role. You are visible and thus act as a role model. As one colleague said in a recent lecture: “People stay with you because they love you.” I don’t see it quite so extreme, but rather similar to Marcus Buckingham of Gallup: “Employees don’t leave companies, but managers. Set a good example. Try to make you want to open up and take away the fear of change. If you feel an uneasiness, ask yourself why you do not want to devote yourself to new developments, perhaps even innovations and new forms of work. Your employees also have emotions in the course of change processes. A healthy degree of empathy helps here. Accept your employees, because that creates trust. As is so often the case in life, tact and a sense of proportion are helpful, because they also enable you to consistently look ahead in order to achieve the goals set by the company together with your employees.

Health in focus

Health is often associated with digitalisation and our accelerated world. You will certainly have stumbled upon resilience-oriented leadership, health management, stress management and similar topics at one time or another. In the media, through health organisations and health insurance companies, attention is repeatedly drawn to the subject of stress. The WHO identifies stress as the world’s No. 1 health risk, so as a manager you should devote your attention to this topic. On the one hand, the employer is still obliged by law per se to take care of his employees and should strive for a respectful treatment of his employees and their work force. On the other hand, I personally also see it as a duty that employers, and thus superiors, appeal to the personal responsibility of employees and show them possibilities and ways in which they can keep an eye on their health through coaching, education and training. A goal could also be that managers in their role as role models and employees maintain and expand their resilience, limits and competencies.

Regular communication

Even in our age of digitalisation, the human being with his or her relationships to other people is at the centre of attention. Relationships to each other are maintained through communication. Sometimes our digitalised world is a challenge in this respect. We are happy to be able to exchange information with colleagues worldwide via Skype or mail in a very uncomplicated way. But Paul Watzlawick already said that good communication is most likely to succeed when the ratio of analogue and digital communication is balanced.

Analogue communication means direct contact, including the perception of gestures, facial expressions, voice etc., while digital communication means the pure linguistic level. In agile work, so-called daily standups have been introduced to improve cooperation and communication. Project teams meet here for 15 minutes every day to exchange ideas. As a supervisor, you could also be a signpost in digital times here. How well does your team communicate? Is there room for improvement? What would be the answer to these questions from the perspective of your team members? Good communication is the basis for team reflection and thus also an approach to improving cooperation.

Concrete suggestions

Let’s assume that you take one or the other impulse from this article with you: Stay authentic! If you want to thank someone for a job well done, then do so in your own words or deeds, this creates trust. A classic example from my past was when a superior made a great effort to make his communication – let’s say – more human. But this did not fit in with his previous style at all, so that he did not appear credible to the staff.

So how do you lead in digital times? In summary, I would answer the question: It all depends. On your personality, on your employees, on the industry, on the size of the company and above all on your values and objectives. Here you will find my eight suggestions for your development process as a manager in digital times:

  • Go into self-reflection!
  • Preserve your personality!
  • Remain authentic!
  • Remain human!
  • Open yourself up to something new!
  • See yourself as a pioneer and companion!
  • Reflect on your value system!
  • Get in touch with your employees and develop your work culture of the future together!


Sandra Brauer is at your disposal for workshops, team reflections, individual consulting and coaching, impulse lectures and the moderation of panel discussions. You can find information on systematic change management at


Sandra Brauer has published further articles in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Digital Awareness

Digital Awareness

t2informatik Blog: Systemic thinking and acting at the workplace

Systemic thinking and acting at the workplace

t2informatik Blog: Dealing with change

Dealing with change

Sandra Brauer

Sandra Brauer

Sandra Brauer – change management with system – is a systemic consultant and trainer for stress management, mindfulness and relaxation. The studied business economist accompanies companies and individuals in change processes. Her main focus is on the accompaniment of digitalisation and change projects, especially in the course of cultural change. Sandra Brauer can be booked for workshops, team reflections, individual consulting and coaching, moderation of panel discussions and impulse lectures.