Seven characteristics of highly successful digital leaders

Digital business transformation is classically built around organisational elements like processes, policies and technology.

However, what gets little attention, but that may be the most fundamental, is the characteristic of effective leadership.

Uncertain events not only disrupt business; they disrupt leadership as well. Digital transformation demands digital leaders who can anticipate opportunities and threats and adapt to changing conditions.

At Gartner we believe there are seven standout characteristics that differentiate regular leaders from successful digital leaders.

1. Digital leaders are neophiliacs

Did I just say Neophiliac? Let me explain. A neophiliac is a personality type characterised by a strong affinity for novelty.

Effective digital leaders have a deep desire to have and create new experiences. Tony Hsieh, co-founder of Zappos, prioritises collisions (serendipitous encounters) over convenience to increase the chances of unplanned innovation.

Build up more neophilia by training a “toward” reaction to newness and reward yourself and your team for doing so. One tactic is to insert newness into trivial areas of a routine environment, to train the brain to accept the unexpected.

Navigating and embracing change has been crucial for innovation, especially amidst uncertainty triggered by the pandemic over the past two years.

2. Digital leaders invent, but also copy

A lot has been written about digital leaders and invention. What’s less celebrated is that digital leaders also know — where they can copy and where they should improvise. They do not invent everywhere. Apple did not invent the music player; it combined the product with an attention-grabbing design and additional services that led to the success of the iPod. Successful digital leaders know where they want to be exponentially better and where they can copy what’s already out there. Conventional leaders should aim to do the same.

3. Digital leaders eschew industry boundaries

Who would have thought that Google might offer an automobile? Or that Alibaba’s Ant Financial would become a banking heavyweight? A potentially overlooked threat could be an organisation in another industry, or a smaller company that might cannibalise your business subtly and slowly.

Digital leaders are different in their ability to see the nonobvious threats. Practice “white space thinking,” the ability to see what’s missing, especially the spaces between industries.

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4. Digital leaders appreciate that innovation is more than just creativity

Conventional leaders often assume that innovation and creativity are interchangeable.

Creativity is only one of the five behaviours required to bring an innovation to market. Innovation is creativity augmented by an ability to challenge, collaborate, construct and commercialise a new idea.

What typical leaders do is make ideation look glamorous and implementation look mundane. A careful selection of skills is required to avoid dominance by any one behaviour. Too much challenging can make people become fearful of proposing anything new. Too much creativity can result in blue-sky activities with no purposeful action.

5. Digital leaders build teams with high AQ

Catastrophic challenges have put attention on the adversity quotient (AQ) as a more powerful coping mechanism than the emotional quotient (EQ) or the intelligence quotient (IQ).

Great digital leaders should measure the AQ of their people. One tool for helping achieve this is WOOP — Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan (developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen), which helps people reach their goals by involving both positive and negative visualisation. To build resilience, avoid focusing only on the positive. Imagine the best-case scenario, but also prepare for hurdles that could prevent you from getting there.

6. Digital leaders never consider digital to be the outcome

Even as just about every product and service is digitised, the best digital leaders are still clear that digital is a means, not an end. It enables transformation by changing the way people work, such as remote and hybrid work technologies, or by changing the products and services an entity provides. Create a vision focused on outcomes beyond “digital” by creating a common understanding of what purpose digital serves. A rule of thumb here is to require that anyone talking about digital add a noun after the adjective. Digital what?

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7. Digital leaders geek out on technology and so do their people

In digital transformation, technical skill translates into business results. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom is a self-taught programmer, while Dropbox CEO Drew Houston was at a Boston train station when he wrote the code for his company.

Successful digital leaders possess a deep understanding of the technology that their business was built upon. Being a geek has evolved from an impertinent term for people with unusual hobbies and interests, to include those with a passion that sets them apart from the rest. Celebrate geekiness and consider it to be a strategic advantage for the business.

If you’re interested in improving your digital leadership, start with one or two characteristics in this list. Avoid trying to adopt all seven at once. Successful digital leaders build adaptive capabilities to stretch their appetites for improbable scenarios. Embrace risk to deliver continuous innovation and adopt leadership that guides teams to create new and disruptive ideas. This will give you the best chance of success over the course of 2022, and beyond.

Written by Apoorva Chhabra, principal analyst at Gartner

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