Leading Digitalization with a Transformational Leadership

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    In an earlier article, I had mentioned the need for a transformative leadership. In a hypercompetitive world where competition is not only local but regional and even international, a transformational leadership is able to motivate employees to greater productivity and more importantly to work in teams for greater efficiency, as well as providing an atmosphere for creativity and innovation to create blue ocean scenarios.

    The current trend for business is that of automation and digitalization where current work processes are replaced by technology with benefits such as improved productivity, cost reduction, as well as opening up new avenues for development. The increased data generated by digital work processes allow for increased monitoring of processes and the analytics generated is also available for fact-based accurate decision making. 

    In spite of the reliance of technology reducing the need for employee load, there is an added reliance on manpower that are trained in technology to maintain and to ensure the smooth running of technological processes. The skilled manpower may be recruited or trained from existing staff. If such skilled manpower is not properly motivated and empowered, they can by their passive inaction lead to all kinds of problems and if they are antagonistic towards management, they can actually inflict real damage, something we have seen in actual practice.

    Can a transformational leader make a difference to digitalization?

    By definition, the transformational leader is not only able to identify the need for change but able to implement and lead change by having a vision to guide the change towards its intended goal. He does this by

    1. Inspiring and motivating members of his organization by drawing them out of their own self-interests to focus on the organization’s goals;
    2. He sets and leads by example, living out the organization’s articulated values, priorities and standards in line with the organization’s vision, mission and goals,
    3. He inspires and fosters an ethical work culture, emphasizing authenticity, cooperation and open communication
    4. He fosters and encourages teamwork and diversity in order to get the best inputs for problem solving
    5. He encourages critical thinking in problem solving with teams and encourages creativity and innovation

    A transformational leader who does all the above must have certain individual characteristics. Indeed, it would seem to me that a transformational leader has what is called the Growth Mindset. Qualities such as being able to learn from experience, adapt and learn, as well as being able to embrace and confront challenges and a positive regard for people under his charge.

    With such a growth mindset and leadership, it is no wonder that the organization can keep learning and improving on dimensions such as productivity, working with diversity, creativity, innovation and so on.

    Engaging and empowering employees to change

    Readers will recall that there is a management theory of motivation known as Theory X vs Theory Y. Theory X assumes that employees dislike work, responsibility and resist change. Hence, they have to be persuaded, compelled or threatened with punishment.  The leadership style to cope with this is dictatorial and authoritarian.

    In contrast, Theory Y assumes that employees find work to be a source of satisfaction, and generally able to exercise their own motivation, self-control, self-direction, creativity in pursuit of individual and collective goals. 

    Given the demands of digitalization, you would need a culture of collaboration and teamwork, and a culture of excellence that promote initiative, creativity and innovation that allows the company to compete effectively in the market place, whether in productivity or in leading with new products and initiatives.

    It is obvious that an environment of theory X employees with its associated tight control and supervision especially when we are dealing with change, is most unsuitable as a cultural setting for digitalization. It is Theory Y employees with their openness, positive attitudes, teamwork and creativity who are more amenable to the digitalization process which is essentially a change process oriented towards the future.

    But are theory X and theory Y employees immutable by nature? Can their behaviour be changed by altered circumstances? Thankfully, most behaviours can be influenced by expectations of what such behaviour should be by the alteration of circumstances and the appropriate reinforcers such as the reward system. We know from experience that when we expect a certain behaviour from someone, more often than not, the expected behaviour follows. So, with a Theory X employee, if he is expected to take a certain action and this is made known to him, the expected behaviour will be seen. Therefore If the leadership of the organization adopts an expectation of theory Y behaviours with the appropriate reward system in place, the whole company will function as theory Y and will be in tune with the leader.

    This therefore provides the framework for changing employees’ behaviour. If an employer is to communicate and talk with his employees in supportive ways, he can change their attitudes and behaviour for the better. We call this type of conversation, appreciative inquiry or coaching conversations which are variants of what is now recognized as conversational intelligence.

    Transforming communication

    Is not this kind of communication an empowering conversation? When employers talk to their employees in supportive ways, he is therefore empowering them as well. And this is one of the key traits of a transformative leader.

    By now, you would have realized that Theory Y employees described one end of the employer-employee dyad while transformative leadership described the other end – the employer. The leader is transformative because of how he relates to all stakeholders including his employees and that’s how he can and should be transformational. And that’s how the transformational leader is going to manage change including the change of digitalization. That is how the organization can be aligned with the leader(with the leadership team) and the organization’s goals and objectives and make a success of digitalization.

    To lead a digitalization process as a transformational leader can be challenging. You have to pay attention to the implementation of digitalization and at the same time lead with a positive attitude, engage your various stakeholders including your staff, provide avenues for feedback, challenges to bring out the best from them and rewards for superior performance. It can be overwhelming, and you certainly need to exercise self-care.

    Perhaps this may be why some leaders shrink from being totally transformative because of the stress involving in paying attention to all these. This is quite akin to caregiver stress in the “tend and befriend” model where the caregiver may succumb unless we pay attention to caregiver needs.

    Hence it is important for the transformational leader to pay attention to his own personal needs while he attends to the needs of others and those of his business. As regard to the task of leading in his business, it would be wise to have a mentor/advisors/coach who can be a sounding board for ideas as well as working out strategies and tactics for best outcomes. Being a transformational leader is a tall order and you need all the resources you have to make use of them.

    There is a view among some SME business owners that being transforming and engaging is soft hearted and pander to the needs and wants of employees. These are usually those who embraced a perception of employees as Theory X. A business owner I know boasted: “I give stress to my people so that they will perform” is typical. However, such a leadership approach works only if employees’ work is manual and purely repetitive and requires no usage of the cerebral cortex!

    This species of employers is getting scarce because of increasing millennial staff and they are demanding engagement from employers. Adopting such a leadership style will not have traction with millennial employees who will get demotivated and leave. Such controlling style of authoritarian leadership will simply lead to demotivated employees and its sequelae in high turnover, high absenteeism from sickness and other maladies, accidents and faulty/shoddy work. You get what you pay for.


    The transformational Leader’s self-care 

    The transformational leader besides facing all the issues to do with the digitalization change process has also to confront his staff’s reaction to digitalization. Specifically, to confront the fears, uncertainty, resistance, the conflicts of his people in constructive and supportive ways. He needs to be able to use his influence and ability to shift people and circumstances so that his leadership team is able to support all stakeholders and influence them to embrace and follow the leadership. And all this while focusing on the strategic direction and keeping true to the values and standards underlying your organizational identity. This is far from easy and requires courage, determination and perseverance wedded to a positive outlook. 

    Obviously, the transformational leader must learn to keep his ego in check and adapt fast. He needs to have the discernment to understand which aspect of his strategy to keep close to his chest as his closely guarded secret and which to share to motivate those who follow him.  As a business leader shared with me: “I share enough with my staff to motivate and challenge to continually do better and keep important information confidential so that our vulnerabilities do not become open secrets”.

    As a transformational leader, you have the freedom, and the courage to make tough and difficult decisions in line with the strategic direction of the company. You would have to take risk on the organization’s behalf and at the same time empower and inspire stakeholders like your staff by your words and deeds.

    Above all else the transformational leader needs all the support he needs, from professional support such as coaches, to informal ones such as those of his informal support network to give him relief in activities ranging from sports to various social, cultural and leisure activities. Leading with a clear sense of direction, your people must feel that they are being cared for by your leadership. 

    Then you will have an organization of committed followers who together with you at the helm will be a healthy organization, traversing the change of digitalization with relative ease and with little mishap. That should be the goal of the transformational leader confronting the digitalization change process.  

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    Dr Douglas Kong is a Certified Executive and Life Coach specialising in helping individuals, teams and organization to function optimally with peak performance in the workplace. He helps people by assisting them to overcome their personal performance barriers and by increasing their social and interpersonal functioning and communication skills. He is a retired psychiatrist whose past training and experience are focused on Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Developmental Psychiatry and Group Dynamics.