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Redefining leadership for a digital age 

Published 11 March 2021 in Leadership • 3 min read

What does it mean to be an effective leader in an environment characterized by increasing digital disruption? 

To address this question, the Digital Business Transformation Center at IMD undertook a major study along with specialist HR Consultancy metaBeratung. Data was collected from two sources: a survey of 1,042 executives, and in-depth interviews with nineteen digital leaders. 

The research revealed that leadership effectiveness in disruptive environments shared many of the same characteristics as leadership in more stable environments, but with a few notable differences. We were able to identify a number of key competencies and business behaviors of Agile Leaders who thrive in this type of environment.

Four characteristics distinguish agile from non-agile leaders. Agile leaders are:

1. Humble: They are able to accept feedback and acknowledge that others know more than they do.

2. Adaptable: They accept that change is constant and that changing their minds based on new information is a strength rather than a weakness.

3. Visionary: They have a clear sense of long-term direction, even in the face of short-term uncertainly.

4. Engaged: They have a willingness to listen, interact, and communicate with internal and external stakeholders combined with a strong sense of interest and curiosity in emerging trends.

Digital transformation sprint

Learn from digital pioneers through examples and case studies how to enhance performance in volatile, uncertain environments.
Agile Leadership diagram

In addition, we found that Agile Leaders exhibited three key behaviors helping them to successfully navigate disruptive environments. They are:

1. Hyperawareness: They are constantly scanning internal and external environments for opportunities and threats.

2. Making Informed Decisions: They make use of data and information to make evidence-based decisions.

3. Executing at Speed: They are able to move quickly, often valuing speed over perfection.

We found that Agile Leaders, those leaders who rated highly on the competencies and behaviors mentioned above, tended to significantly out-perform other leaders on measures such as work engagement and leadership effectiveness.

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Michael Wade - IMD Professor

Michael R. Wade

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Michael R Wade holds the Tonomus Professorship in Digital Business Transformation and is Director of IMD’s Global Center for Digital Business Transformation. He directs a number of open programs such as Leading Digital Business Transformation, Digital Transformation for Boards, Leading Digital Execution, and the Digital Transformation Sprint. He has written ten books, hundreds of articles, and hosts a popular management podcast. In 2021, he was inducted into the Swiss Digital Shapers Hall of Fame.

Andrew Tarling

Researcher and consultant in digital transformation strategies and ‘Agile Leadership’ at the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation in Switzerland

Andrew Tarling is a researcher and a consultant in digital transformation strategies and Agile Leadership at the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation in Switzerland. He also specializes in digital business transformation and championing cultural change to a digital-first mentality.

Rainer Neubauer

Head of Learning and Development at metaBeratung GmbH, Germany

Rainer Neubauer is Head of Learning and Development at metaBeratung GmbH, Germany. With extensive experience across agile leadership, culture transformation, change management, and performance management he supports leadership in top-tier organizations.


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