A key ingredient in the success of any organisation or business is effective leadership. Many academics and former captains of industry have written extensively on the topic. They have shared their views on what makes effective leaders and what characteristics leaders should possess. The debate continues on whether leadership traits are inherent to an individual, or whether these skills can be taught and learned. Whichever side of the debate you are on, what is clear is that technology and information is changing the leadership landscape for modern day CEOs.
The advent of the internet and the technology era has certainly disrupted the debate and has forced us to rethink the issue of leadership in the 21stCentury. In a world that is now driven by technology and innovation, leadership styles of old are being put under the microscope and critiqued on a daily basis. This is because we are trying to find more effective ways to build sustainable and competitive modern day businesses in a substantially more integrated global market, in which the work environment is steadily becoming dominated by technology and the presence of the “millennial generation”.
At the heart of the technology era is information and its ability to be easily accessed at any time and disseminated quickly at practically no cost. Because of the abundance of information, people now know more, or at least have the ability to know more about anything at the click of a button. This is very different to earlier times before the introduction of the internet where information was not readily available to everyone.
In the past, power was characterised by one’s ability to access information, and when only senior leadership in a business or organisation had access to information, it enabled them to be dominant as they could exercise control with very little pushback or debate from those they led. That dominance influenced the adoption of a more autocratic style of leadership to which we have all been exposed. Seemingly, the days of fully autocratic leadership are numbered.
The reality is that leaders who watch and respond positively to developments in the technology space and are flexible and able to adapt are likely to succeed, while those who ignore such developments are in danger of failing. This in no way suggests that there are no principles or fundamentals from earlier leadership styles that remain relevant in the technology era. On the contrary, there have been great leaders in history and many of the principles and fundamentals they identified and established in leading nations and big corporations still form the foundation upon which various concepts of alternative leadership styles in the technology era are built today.
Regardless of the industry, the office of modern day CEOs is information driven. Analytical skill and the ability to study and interpret various forms of information to determine its impact on the business and how the business should respond from a strategic and public relations perspective have become key imperatives for success. Threats to market share by emerging competitors and opportunities to gain greater market share are often found in digital data and it plays a pivotal role in shaping and influencing strategies for future growth and profitability. Long gone are the days when corporations were able to keep all their information private - transparency has become the order of the day.
Modern day CEOs now have to continuously consider how much information they should process and how much information about the business employees and other stakeholders have access to. The issue of what information about the business and how much of it is in the public domain has never been more important than it is today because information has become so powerful that it can impact the share price of a public company within minutes of its dissemination. Every stock exchange in the world has at least one example of the impact that information can have on the market capitalisation of a listed company.
Shareholders are also becoming less forgiving of any miscalculations that lead to operational and strategic decisions that decrease the value of their investments. This is because, from their perspective, the fact that information is readily available should make it easier for CEOs and senior leadership to make calculated, strategic decisions that result in greater returns to shareholders. To put it bluntly, in the technology and information era, CEOs are expected to get it right all the time.
CEOs are also expected to be better and more effective communicators. Employees and stakeholders, which include regulatory bodies, require answers to their questions quicker than before. Shareholders expect financial information to be readily available when they request it and media houses demand immediate responses for media reports that are then broadcasted across the globe. The time for CEOs and public relations executives to sit in a boardroom over coffee and carefully craft written responses has been substantially reduced because everything generally happens faster. Because of this, decisiveness and the ability to make decisions quickly have become critically important for CEOs, as has the ability to ensure that accurate information is conveyed in the public domain.
There are a myriad of other technical skills and competencies that CEOs need to be successful and the requirements change constantly as new innovations and technologies are introduced. Perhaps the most important one is that CEOs must possess the ability to identify, harness and use talent optimally to ensure that appropriate teams are dedicated to assisting in the processing, distributing and disseminating of accurate information. In a technology driven era, efficient teams comprising the right skills can assist CEOs to lead effectively and deliver tangible value to shareholders.
Lancaster is a leadership coach and former senior partner at Webber Wentzel and Gwanzura is head of dispute resolution at Barloworld and a former partner at Webber Wentzel
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