Advances in information and communication technology have changed almost all aspects of life in the 21st century. This is no less true of the nature of leadership where a global economy, e-commerce, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet-of-Things (IoT), big data, digital tribes, cloud computing, and other advances continue to disrupt old paradigms, models, industries, relationships, and institutions and lead to new ones. It is perhaps too soon to draw any definitive conclusions; how have these and related forces changed the nature of leadership? Do we require e-leadership for an Information Age? What type of leadership and what skill-set will be required if public and private sector organizations in China, the U.S., the EU, and all countries are to ensure that technology will result in a better life for all citizens and our planet?
What is "e-leadership"?
There is no standard definition of e-leadership. Indeed, at this stage, it remains a new term with an unsettled meaning. Other terms and contexts in which e-leadership or its synonym is deployed in the academic, business, and governance literature include technology leadership, ICT leadership, online leadership, virtual leadership, digital leadership, virtual team leader, etc.
On the one hand, e-leaders can be described in terms of traditional leaders. They confront issues of motivating followers, organizing their members, gaining trust, establishing principles, and responding to challenges. On the other hand, e-leaders have new challenges of dealing with across many jurisdictions with different legal systems, reaching across diverse cultures with many languages, operating in a virtual environment that is highly fluid and rapidly changing, forming and dealing with digital tribes whose membership and values are amorphous and often changing, and so on. E-leaders must be masters of new and diverse forms of communication such as social media, Twitter, WeChat, websites, electronic polls, etc.
What skills are required of e-leaders?
E-leaders require broad and deep skills. They typically require in-depth knowledge and skill set from a particular discipline (e.g., engineering, law, finance, medicine) as well as a broad range of skills, such as time management, negotiation, advocacy, critical and systems thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, cultural intelligence, and emotional intelligence. Underpinning e-leaders' specialized skill set and their broad skills is an understanding of technology and the multi-layered abilities to lead in this new 21st century information environment. This includes the ability to form and effectively lead virtual teams. E-leaders must also be skilled in managing external partnerships. They must be data driven and customer focused as opposed to product focused. They must be effective at initiating and managing change, balancing disruption, and innovation.
What role for e-learning and human-machine partnerships?
Today, all organizations must be learning organizations; e-leaders must be skilled in and committed to e-learning and the global implications of e-learning for all. Today's e-leaders must be adept at developing new and more effective leadership and management understandings of how to master this new environment with its network of personal and organizational relationships extending across national borders and diverse cultures and technologies.
With the growth of artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics, the divide between machines and humans is becoming increasingly blurred. E-leaders will also have to learn to leverage new knowledge creation and increasingly sophisticated AI-driven systems. This will involve learning how to leverage this new knowledge power and even partner with artificial intelligence systems in creating new models, systems, and forms of accountability, which often raise novel and unclarified ethical challenges as machines and human intelligence increasingly merge.
What are some of the contexts and tasks in which e-leadership will be crucial?
E-leadership will take place in almost every conceivable context. At the highest level, this will require leading the design and shape of future visions. As French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, eloquently put it: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
Vision will remain a dream without specific strategies and action steps to make things happen. Thus, e-leadership will also involve leading strategic planning in this new environment and helping to shape new and adaptive systems that shape behaviors, define new relationships, create trust, develop organizational values, promote collaboration, encourage diversity, and more. E-leadership will be involved in attracting, training, and nurturing talent for e-leadership at all levels of the organization. E-leaders will have to be adept at forging partnerships across industries, across different cultures, across national boundaries, etc. E-leadership will be involved in adapting, evaluating and constantly improving systems, balancing risks with innovation. This will be very challenging given the significant shortage of such high-order skills.
What will be the role of educational institutions?
For a Knowledge Economy and Information Age to succeed, there must be an effective tri-partite relationship and collaboration among government, business, and academia. Learning must become truly life-long. There must be greater cohesion between the private and public sectors and among businesses, governments, and education. Within education itself, there has to be much greater cooperation and curricula coherence in primary, secondary, and tertiary level education. The worlds of work and learning, knowledge creation and acquisition, must come together. There must be stronger links between theory and practice.
E-leadership talent and skills are required at all levels of society and in both public and private sectors. E-leaders are crucial if we are to reap the benefits of technological advances while minimizing negative impacts. E-leadership enables networks to operate effectively. It brings together digital tribes and virtual communities from around the world. E-leaders are required to disrupt old unresponsive constructs and to create new networks that bring people together to innovate and rebuild old institutions and create new ones to cope with a complex global society whose people are increasingly interdependent on one another and dependent upon technology.