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5 Essential qualities for a leader of the Digital Age

5 Essential qualities for a leader of the Digital Age...

If you’re a leader in the public or private sector you know by now that a massive digital transformation is underway.  

In the near future the ways that governments interact with their citizens will change dramatically. The tools already available, including technologies like artificial intelligence, data mining and blockchain mean that organisations and leaders will increasingly have to make strategic decisions about where they are headed and how they will get there. 

And these decisions will be made in the midst of both unprecedented uncertainty and tantalising possibility. 

So what kind of leaders will prosper in this environment? And what kind of skills will they need to have? 

ThinkPlace New Zealand recently ran a deep dive conversation around leading in the digital age. At our Wellington Design Studio we hosted several government leaders active in this space and UK-based consultancy Adapt2Digital, who shared their experiences about elevating leadership in the UK and Australian public sectors.

ThinkPlace Nomadic Leadership - group attending video conference
Business Leadership is no longer limited to a corner office with great views in a government building in Wellington or Canberra or London

ThinkPlace New Zealand has been at the forefront of adapting to digital transformation and helping leading organisations navigate changing times while keeping their focus squarely on customers, clients and citizens. Our approach to digital is human-centred and focuses on identifying the right tools to make the desired impact.  

You can read more about the ThinkPlace approach to Digital here

Globally, we are playing an active role in equipping leaders for the emerging digital era through our hugely-popular course: Ethics of Digital Transformation attended by senior leaders representing the United Nations, New Zealand Government, Samoan Government, 10 Commonwealth and jurisdictional agencies in Australia. The next upcoming course is on 7th May at Canberra, Australia. We also plan to offer this course in New Zealand soon. 

This is an age where leadership will be judged not just by how government transforms its own capabilities and services, but how it does so in a way that keeps pace with the digital and cultural transitions happening in the broader society.  

So what are some of the important considerations we identified? 


1. Leadership and experience are not the same 

Digital age leadership is not so much about what leaders know or the past experience they have, but about how they think, behave and act differently in this age. 

Mel Ross, founder of Adapt2Digital, stated that in all the leader profiles they have assessed in the UK and Australia, everyone had at least one leadership attribute to be effectve in this age. Leaders need to learn to identify and value this attribute and work on others they need to strengthen 


2. Leadership must be forward facing 

We explored how leaders in the digital age could act as role models. One trait that we all converged on was the experimental mindset. In human-centred design this is both a critical mindset and a powerful technique (prototyping).  And in a rapidly evolving world fuelled by digital advances leaders need to have the same mindset.  

You can’t innovate your way forward by looking back. And true innovators will always struggle to demonstrate value if asked to prove or measure their innovation against the past. That doesn’t mean that leaders should blindly act on a hunch, only that the evidence provided by the past can be a limiting constraint. 

 In other words, prototype that hunch! 


3. Leaders should iterate and rapidly test 

Part of an experimental mindset is for leaders to build enough agility into their organisations to be able to ideate quickly, iterate quickly, test those iterations long before implementation and to use the learnings gathered to reiterate and improve. 

There are so many opportunities now, so many things a leader could do, that leaders need to test their way forward. This means the kind of design thinking mindsets we have long used in our work are becoming more important than ever.  

Humphrey Wikeepa from Te Puni Kōkiri and ex-Network for Learning board member, added that his phrase for this journey is from the “Chalkboard to the Desktop to the Mindset”.  


4. Nomadic leadership 

During our conversation we also explored the changing boundaries regarding where people can lead from. Here’s a clue: it is no longer limited to the corner office in a government building in Wellington or Canberra or London.  

In our conversation alone we tallied personal examples ranging from remote parts of the Bay of Plenty to rural Spain to the Yurok tribal reservation in Northern California. Effective leaders in the digital age are not tied to location anymore, can be very mobile and use tools that truly amplify this. If their teams are built with the right principles and imbued with the right culture digital leaders can make geographic diffusion work for them. 


5. Leading as a country 

We often think of ourselves as small or humble but New Zealand has a unique and powerful opportunity to be a leader in this digital age. We have long held and still retain a 'number 8 wire’ give-it-a-go mindset. We have always proven ourselves to be an adaptable people, lending a pragmatic edge to our spirit of ingenuity and resourcefulness. 

And contrary to what we sometimnes believe about ourselves, we have the advantage of size. A smaller bureaucracy and fewer layers of government mean we can iterate, prototype and test much more rapidly than jurisdictions that have more sprawling bureaucracies.  

The challenge of digital leadership for us all is to step up to this opportunity. 


This kind of event – a focused and energising deep-dive discussion involving the right voices at the right time – can help to drive the thinking that will be required. ThinkPlace intends to continue to run such conversations on important topics, stay tuned for news of upcoming events and please let us know if you are interested in being part of it. 


Emerging leaders and changemakers can stay up to date with what we are doing, as well as get discounts on education courses and priority access to events by joining CIPI: Our Community for Innovation and Public Impact 

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