Leadership and the Tech Revolution

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Mila N. Baker

The Rise of Technology
The rapid advancement of technology and the proliferation of mobile and other network-attached devices have been the catalysts and tipping points for all types of changes in how we consume media, organize data, and communicate with each other. The medium and the messages are shifting.

Conversely, our views of leadership and organizational life have been slow to change. These fundamental shifts in technology and media consumption have blurred the boundaries of communication within organizations, which has in turn blurred the distinction between leaders and followers and also the media and messages they use to communicate. Traditional leadership models and prevailing paradigms based on these roles are no longer suited for the world we live in today. A digital revolution is driving complexity and pace. It presents enormous challenge and opportunity. There are new computational tools and voluminous data of all types.

Social Media and Individual Power
One of the most profound shifts has been an erosion of individual power and authority, with an unearthing of collective power enabled through social media. Historically, power and authority have been granted to or taken by a few and reinforced through organizational hierarchy and structure. Today, informal social networks like Twitter and Facebook are usurping the power of some formal, hierarchical networks. We need to challenge ourselves and ask the question, "What is the rationale for maintaining the outmoded and cumbersome organizational layers and vertical hierarchies?" Why haven’t we embraced Fritz Capra’s notion that all learning systems are coordinated by network? We have been discussing the notion of the organization as a social system for quite some time.

While the focus on informal networks is generally discussed in terms of social networks and social relationships—not related to power and authority within networks—each of these shifts challenges the notion of command-and-control leadership and the clearly delineated roles of leader and follower. In the case of the Arab Spring, informal networks allowed individuals to organize more efficiently. The power of subordinates and followers was significantly elevated, and traditional, hierarchical leadership was overthrown in a very concrete way.

Structural Changes Within Organizations
Technology has also disrupted structural boundaries within organizations. Like an earthquake fault line that releases energy associated with rapid movement and structural shifting, there is a leadership fault line that has fractured and resulted in discontinuity and a permanent fracture in our traditional leadership formations. The organization is flattened, matrixed, and decentralized as it incorporates tools and emerging technologies into many areas of operation (e.g., enterprise systems and social media for customers, and potential employees, etc.). The structural boundaries within organizations have been permanently altered as a result of technological eruptions and explosions and to accommodate some of the shifts, leaders and followers move into these new forms of organizational structure.

Too often, organizations see technological advances as primarily the responsibility of the Information Technology department. External forces, customer demands, or security concerns often drive how an organization responds to shifts in landscape, be they technological or otherwise. Organizations rarely integrate internal organizational changes in advance of a specific cause-and-effect event. This lack of planning places an organization in a perpetual cycle of reactionary change and, frequently, behind the curve. Rather than temper or hedge the effect of technology on an organization’s infrastructure, the desired action should be to embrace new developments and leverage them to their fullest potential.

The shift to power of the masses within organizations is unleashing the grip of command-and-control leadership. More specifically, command-and-control leadership is losing its grip on the organizational clutch. Where hierarchy and traditional organizational structures either intentionally or unintentionally acted as a barrier to equality, new technological advances erase those barriers. Even when leaders within traditional models make attempts to treat everyone as an equal and genuinely see the value of doing so, the traditional organizational structures and lexicon stand as impermeable, and often invisible, barriers. Leading in the twenty-first century requires a new structure and design that is more suited to the realities of today. This is a journey that many organizations have begun, and they are taking steps forward.

Individuality and Equality
In recent years, there has been a shift in the balance between organizational leadership and individuality evidenced by the disparity between pay for senior leaders and pay for the average worker. The justification for the increase in CEO compensation and the huge severance packages for senior executives who leave underperforming organizations are reflections of the focus on the value of the individual.

Since the founding of the United States, the balance between individuality and equality has, over time, shifted toward one pole or the other. Where power was once concentrated in the hands of few at the top of traditional hierarchies, the revolutions in technology have abruptly swung the pendulum back toward equality of the masses. The influence of power and authority has diminished.

Today, new books have surfaced that discuss the rise of the power of followers, the need for more empowerment, or how to make leaders act like followers and followers act like leaders. There have been calls to de-emphasize command-and-control leadership in favor of a more matrixed or hybrid organization structure. In spite of all the adjustments—command-and-control tweaks and redesign, ultimately—the language and message is still rooted in a model dominated by traditional hierarchy.

When Canadian geese migrate, they fly in a V-formation to move quickly and fly longer than they could as individuals. Geese use synergy—the law of nature that recognizes that working together creates a greater result than could be achieved alone. The pendulum has swung such that leadership now requires synergy and an adjustment that better suits the realities of the time. The rationale for the importance of both leading and following is that data moves too quickly. No one has the capacity to know everything they need to know or to convert all the data to information needed to be successful in the twenty-first century.

What we have is not working. The disparity between principle and established practice is transparent to the masses. Elaborate leadership development programs, coaching initiatives, a proliferation of leadership books and “best practice” guidance, and reinforcement from other organizations that only expand on current practice are no longer viable solutions or sufficient for building effective leadership.

Leadership in today’s world requires insight from more than one individual. We must rely constantly on others’ insight even when we are in a position of authority.

Excerpted and adapted, with permission of the publisher, from Peer to Peer Leadership: Why the Network Is the Leader,  by Mila N. Baker. Copyright 2014 (Berrett-Koehler, 2014). All rights resered.

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About the Author(s)

Mila N. Baker is director of leadership and human capital management programs and academic chair of the MS in the human resource management and organization development program at New York University’s School for Continuing and Professional Studies. She has served in senior HR and Leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies and as a senior consultant/advisor at the World Bank. She is the author of Peer to Peer Leadership: Why the Network Is the Leader (Berrett-Koehler, 2014).