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Revisiting leadership development in a digital age


There is little argument that humankind lives in a rapidly changing environment, more so than in any other century. In an age of technological dominance and geo-political instability there is no certainty ab​out how the future will look. Our current paradigm of learning and leadership is being challenged daily by changes in our environment. Our social relations are managed and increasingly controlled by social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Snapchat. Previously trusted media information sources have mostly become politicised. Fake news has infused the internet with dubious information which is making effective leadership decisions not only difficult but also risky.

Leadership in a digital age has taken on different dimensions which are not yet clearly studied or understood. What is certain is that there is no unified or grand theory for leadership. Leadership models are outdated and not well-suited for the information society. Leadership development requires a fresh approach to ensure that future leaders have the skills to lead in this emerging new age. A new breed of leader is therefore needed to face the demands of the future of work where digitisation, continuous learning and constant change, critical thinking and adaptability will be key features to successfully manage a complicated and diverse reality.

Current leadership studies and consultants offer various approaches to becoming a successful leader. The most recent approaches include transformational leadership, servant leadership, authentic and ethical leadership, contingency leadership and a host of similar approaches. These leadership models all offer some element of leadership based either on a behavioural or value-based approach.

There are various aspects to be explored regarding leadership in a digital age, but in this piece the focus centres on the power relationship between leader and follower, with a specific emphasis on the use of technology and social media. In an information-rich society and knowledge-dominant business environment, the power is shifting to the edge, in other words to the knowledge worker and the consumer. This has already resulted in organisations becoming more agile, with traditional "command-and-control" management styles becoming less effective and in some cases obsolete. In such an environment it becomes problematic for leaders to still exercise influence both inside and outside their organisations.

Power and influence in leadership have for a long time been viewed as a key focus area in leadership studies. Power is a fundamental force in both formal and social relationships. However, digitisation and social media are changing the leader–follower power balance and must receive our attention from both a leadership studies perspective, and a leadership development perspective. A key question in today's environment is how a leader establishes influence in a digital era and how leadership studies and leadership development should react to these new demands? In 2013, Bennis argued that if leaders at any level do not understand how to use the digital world and "… if they do not understand the power that it has on their relationships with their stakeholders, then they will seriously be left behind."

The loss of power and influence can be re-established by using social media where the quality of interactions and the reach of the message transcends time and space. Deiser and Newton, also in 2013, expressed this persuasively in a McKinsey article, stating that "social media encourages horizontal collaboration and unscripted conversations that travel in random paths across management hierarchies. It thereby short-circuits established power dynamics and traditional lines of communication." This is no more evident than with the recent election of President Trump who circumvented a biased media to get his message directly across to the American people.

Many social media platforms, but especially Twitter, allow users to listen actively to what their followers, employees, customers and competitors say about services, products and the leadership of their respective companies or countries. Leaders need to actively engage these stakeholders and build and establish an interwoven communication network to influence conversations, expand their social power and build trust.

The demands of leadership in a digital world post new challenges for leadership development practitioners and academics. There are not yet clear answers, and current leadership frameworks only offer fragmented explanations. An emerging leadership development approach that has not yet received sufficient attention is the leader-as-practice (L-A-P) model. In 2016, Hebert argued that scholar-practitioners desire to gain an intimate awareness of their practice with the objective of better navigating the future. Hence, one's practice will dictate what kind of leader one will be and one's interactions with other people will shape one's leadership. The L-A-P model  integrates theory and practice into a holistic learning and leadership framework, and on using social media to one's advantage a different power-follower relationship can be established on the basis of active listening, engagement and a mutual trust of collaborative learning and personal growth.

Leadership development practitioners and academics in leadership studies will have to take note of how one's leadership is shaped not only through one's own practice, but also through the interaction and collaboration with followers and the emerging importance of follower-power.


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Dr Herman van Niekerk is associate dean for business doctoral programmes at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Phoenix, Arizona. He obtained his PhD from Stellenbosch University in 2004. His research interests and consulting expertise focus on strategic leadership and decision-making, and how these can be improved through the development of organisational and business foresight capabilities.

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