What and Why Digital Leadership

What and Why Digital Leadership

by raluca

Leadership is deemed as a top criterion for success with any organizational change initiative [1, 2]. With the increased focus on digitalization and business transformation, it is easy to infer that if companies wish to succeed in these efforts, it is time to look at digital leadership beyond the IT department or the CIO.

We define digital leadership as a process of social influence mediated by technology, to produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behavior and/or performance with individuals, groups, and/or organizations, which can occur at any hierarchical level in an organization and can involve one-to-one and/or one-to-many interactions. [3]

Although leadership has been researched and performed for many years, it is important to develop new ways to discuss leadership, for several reasons:

  1. Digital communication. Leadership theories and models are built on the assumption that employees and leaders can interact and communicate face-to-face. However, most companies use at least emails to communicate, even when working in the same office space. Many studies argue about the particularities of digital communication, which makes it difficult to apply the same principles as in traditional leadership. One example is that messages written by leaders can be perceived as less positive by their receivers [4]. In this case, new ways of communicating are required.
  2. Technology automatizes routine tasks and the employees that were previously performing these tasks are now freed up to focus on more creative and complex tasks [5, 6]. The role of the manager as a supervisor, controller, and coordinator is thus changing to that of an enabler of creative and complex work. Productivity, formerly a responsibility of the leader, is now in the hands of the knowledge worker [7].
  3. Humans’ mindset is changing. Bass (1999) points out that the conforming worker of the 1950s that would go beyond one self’s interest in the interest of the organization has been replaced with the critical and skeptical worker of the 1990s. A classical example is that of millennials who believe that leaders should serve rather than direct and that the power comes from information sharing [8].

The networked organization

4. Organizations. Traditional hierarchies are being disrupted as employees can increasingly self-organize around networks of peers with similar competencies or ideas [9]. In this cases, we are shifting from the traditional role of the leader as the center of information to new forms of leadership enabled by the networked organizations (as depicted in the picture).

5. Work is moving away from being defined by a specific time interval and specific concrete walls, to being performed anytime, anywhere, in real space or in cyberspace [10]. This means that teams become more diverse, as remote work allows for example, for companies to hire employees based in other countries. In the post-bureaucratic and digital organization, work is also moving from being defined as a list of tasks, to the manager not being able to define what the employees should be working on.

These shifts in digital communication, technology, humans’ mindset, organizations, and work are some of the reasons why we need to reconsider leadership in the digital age.


  1. Orlikowski, Wanda J. “The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations.” Organization Science, vol. 3, no. 3, 1992, pp. 398–427., doi:10.1287/orsc.3.3.398.
  2. Kotter, John P. “Leading Change.” 2011, doi:10.15358/9783800646159.
  3. Stana, R., Harder Fischer, L., Nicolajsen, H.,W., (2018). Review for future research in digital leadership, The 41st Information Systems Research Conference in Scandinavia (IRIS41) (forthcoming).
  4. Byron, K. “Carrying Too Heavy a Load? The Communication and Miscommunication of Emotion by Email.” Academy of Management Review, vol. 33, no. 2, Jan. 2008, pp. 309–327., doi:10.5465/amr.2008.31193163.
  5. Davenport, T.H. and Kirby, J. “Beyond Automation”. Harvard Business Review. June, 2015.
  6. Zammuto, Raymond F., et al. “Information Technology and the Changing Fabric of Organization.” Organization Science, vol. 18, no. 5, 2007, pp. 749–762., doi:10.1287/orsc.1070.0307.
  7. Drucker, Peter F. “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge.” California Management Review, vol. 41, no. 2, 1999, pp. 79–94., doi:10.2307/41165987.
  8. Avolio, Bruce J., et al. “E-Leadership: Re-Examining Transformations in Leadership Source and Transmission.” The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1, 2014, pp. 105–131., doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.11.003.
  9. Klier, J., Klier, M., Richter, A., & Wiesneth, K. (2017). Two Sides of the Same Coin? – The Effects of Hierarchy Inside and Outside Enterprise Social NetworksProceedings / International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS).
  10. Cascio, Wayne, and Stan Shurygailo. “E-Leadership and Virtual Teams.” IEEE Engineering Management Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 2008, pp. 79–79., doi:10.1109/emr.2008.4490142.
  11. Billett, Stephen. “Changing Work, Work Practice: The Consequences for Vocational Education.” International Handbook of Education for the Changing World of Work, 2009, pp. 175–187., doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-5281-1_11.
Picture of Raluca Stana

I research digital leadership and emotions in information systems.

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