In order to be an effective leader in an increasingly digital and virtual world, leadership must include core social and emotional skills.

Understanding leadership in a digital context

Effective leadership in an increasingly virtual world requires core social and emotional skills

Key points:

Questions regarding the role of technology in our personal and professional lives are a common feature of contemporary life. In a recent letter signed by hundreds of AI scientists, researchers, and other industry leaders, experts warned that “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

This warning comes on the heels of the release of a new Surgeon General Advisory by United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in the United States. As the report highlights, “a variety of technologies have quickly and dramatically changed how we live, work, communicate, and socialize. These technologies include social media, smartphones, virtual reality, remote work, artificial intelligence, and assistive technologies.”

With this backdrop in mind, it seems appropriate to direct our attention to the broader set of implications for those engaged in leadership in an increasingly mediated world. For many leaders in higher education and across industries, the focus on leadership in digital contexts is far from new. For others, it is a topic that continues to grow in intensity and urgency, perhaps accelerated by the shift to more hybrid or remote ways of working in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The implications of these technologies for institutions of higher education are potentially profound. In a recently published special feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education, several thought leaders from across higher education offered perspective on the ways in which AI will change higher education, from “admissions to assessment, academic integrity to scholarly research, university operations to disappearing jobs.”

Our recently-published book, Leadership in Digital Contexts, offers a synthesis of cross-disciplinary research and advances ideas, strategies, and guiding questions for those seeking to explore the dynamics of leadership in an increasingly globalized and mediated world.

While many factors associated with the study and practice of leadership are consistent across situations and contexts, information and communication technologies have altered the leadership landscape in notable ways. In seeking to better understand ways of approaching leadership in digital contexts, it is important to note that most of the theories, models, and strategies associated with the study and practice of leadership were developed before the arrival of the internet, the World Wide Web, and the many digital applications, technologies, and platforms in use today. This book presents a framework for examining and understanding the role of information and communication technologies in shaping how leaders influence, engage, inform, and build consensus in online and virtual settings.

An understanding of leadership in a digital context requires awareness of the interactions across leaders, followers, and the broader environment in which these dynamics occur. Despite exponential advancements in data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, core social and emotional skills remain necessary for effective leadership in a digital age. Importantly, leadership in this increasingly virtual world requires an understanding of and appreciation for communication, and one’s success as a leader ultimately hinges upon one’s ability to build trust, credibility, and engagement with others. Leaders might choose to draw upon these available technologies as a conduit for communication and as a mechanism by which to influence others, and despite the importance of adopting a digital mindset, leadership remains a human endeavor.

As the challenges and opportunities afforded by advancements in technology continue to impact our work in higher education and across sectors, we invite those engaged in leadership to consider the following questions:

a) What is your purpose for engaging in leadership at this moment in time?

b) In what ways might you leverage available technologies to help support you in your influence efforts?

c) Which voices are amplified or marginalized in your unit, department, or school, and in what ways can you ensure available technologies help to support your goals for equity and inclusion

d) What actions do you intend to take in pursuit of cultivating your desired online identity and brand?

These questions, and others, are ones that we explore more fully in our book, and they are questions we hope leaders will consider as we lean more fully into a “post-COVID” world and realize more fully the impact of these rapidly emerging technologies.

Peeling back the layers of digital transformation

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