Leaders not managers needed for the transition to digital

Leaders, not managers, are needed if local public services are to make the vital transition to digital, according to a new report from Socitm.

The good news is that with the right support, the organisation says, leaders can be developed rather than just emerging randomly.

Developing digital leadership: what’s involved? is the latest briefing from Socitm, starts by exploring the difference between the managerial role (improving business as usual) and the leader role (making and driving change).


A new revolution

An analogy with the industrial revolution is used to make the distinction. It was leaders in those Victorian times that had the vision to promote trade and build the economy by connecting ports to major cities with railways. They convinced investors and drove the project against resistance from landowners and Luddites. Managers, meanwhile, made the railway work, and the trains run to time.

The huge changes of the digital era are comparable with those brought by the railways, says the briefing, but represent an even bigger upheaval of society.

Digital leaders have not only to understand the potential power of today’s technologies, but also envisage the possible applications in their local context.

They must then sell the vision to a wide array of stakeholders, including, in a local government context, elected members; other tiers of government; partner organisations; high-profile unelected local opinion formers, and the NIMBY community.

Then they need to find among their colleagues people to share the vision and turn it into reality, providing them with ongoing support and energy, ensuring that the negativity of naysayers does not derail the initiative.

At a critical time when local public services are going through a period where getting with the digital programme is the only answer, organisations are looking to have leadership rather than management at the top and recruiters are looking for leaders to fill top-level vacancies.

But those organisations should not rely on leaders emerging naturally, even though conditions for their arrival are ripe: a highly educated workforce emboldened by social media, a more democratic culture, and expectations that advancement comes from achievement not length of service. Organisations should instead take the initiative to actively cultivate and grow leaders from the grass roots, rather than hope they are carried by the wind.


Leadership skills

The briefing describes a set of leadership skills and competencies (e.g. open-mindedness, ability to analyse, credibility) and their typical characteristics (e.g. approachable; collaborative, focused on solutions not problems).

It suggests that such skills, competencies and characteristics will be acquired through personal development programmes rather than through training, since the former delivers the ability to manage things like stress, complexity and ambiguity while the latter focuses on imparting more limited technical and mechanical skills.

These subtle leadership qualities enable leaders to support and empower employees so that they become more effective, more open to ideas, and more creative. They also enable leaders to control their own emotions and reactions in order to be more successful in achieving their ends.


Developing digital leadership: what’s involved? can be downloaded free of charge by Socitm Insight subscribers at https://khub.net/group/socitm-insight/library.

Related reading