“Digital leadership is a scientific approach to defining the tasks and tools of leadership in times of digitization in general and in phases of transformation into digitization in particular.” This definition can currently be found at Wikipedia .

In the course of my research, I examined the term with over 60 executives. For me (Lindner 2019) the term is defined as follows: “Digital leadership is a cross-sectional competence as well as a collective term for various methods, theories and tools that describe leadership and, in particular, leadership competence in the digital age”

But what exactly is different about this tour in the digital world. Already that Research project of the Crisp noted the following:

A number of high expectations are projected onto the new generation of executives. In addition to a large number of desired characteristics, the digital leader primarily maintains a constructive and continuous exchange with his own IT department, actively informs himself about IT innovations and thinks disruptively with a view to new processes and business models.

Challenges of digital leadership

Leadership has always dealt with the size of executives with societal and entrepreneurial challenges. The so-called digital age or digitization is a new challenge. But the challenges facing leadership are complex and numerous and can quickly become overwhelming.

The challenges facing leadership are complex and numerous and can quickly become overwhelming.

In order to shed more light on this, I discussed in a roundtable with 7 executives the challenges that digitization brings with it. The result can be seen in the following figure. The source can be found under Lindner and Greff (2019).

Challenges to leadership (Lindner and Greff 2019)

On the one hand, agile teams and methods are increasing, especially in IT. More and more managers are confronted with agile teams and are considering what a new type of leadership could look like.

On the other hand, current executives expect a clash of generations. The digitally reserved Generation X already meets the digitally influenced Generation Y. In addition, both will meet the completely digital Generation Z. Not each of these generations can be managed with the same methods and so a balancing act is required for the digital leader.

In addition, remote work and virtual teams are increasing, which is accompanied by management at a distance with virtual software tools. It is not clear how this can currently be implemented in a target-oriented manner by executives.

The last challenge is changing traditional business models and the associated change management, which must essentially be controlled by executives.

Challenge 1: Agile Leadership / Agile Teams

“Agility is defined as the ability of an individual or object to react flexibly to requirements and to adapt to its environment” (Lindner and Leyh 2018). It can therefore be assumed that leadership in an agile context is flexibly tailored to the employee or the work environment (Lindner and Greff 2018).

TIP: Take a look at the free PDF list with the recommended actions for the article

An agile value image

Agile leadership is a mindset and a personal attitude of the manager. So that you can understand this, I had over 60 managers create a value map based on slide rules. In the figure you can see how an agile mindset should look like according to the executives. This can serve as a guideline for you in everyday life.

Agile value map according to Lindner and Greff (2019)

Leadership methods and agility

Leadership has been around for a long time and there are numerous concepts around agile leadership , digital leadership and classical leadership in the sense of Taylorism (Command and Control). I would like to bring you closer to the individual methods in more concrete terms.

The challenge is: Use all leadership methods sensibly at the right time.

In my research I came across 9 leadership styles, which should cover 90% of the possible behaviors of a manager. I roughly differentiate the styles between the type of eye level and the autonomy for the employee.

Reading tip: Here you can find out more about the management methods

agile digital leadership
Leadership styles in the team arranged according to eye level and autonomy (own presentation with a little inspiration from Career bible )

In an agile context, a manager should use management methods that are individually tailored to each employee. The idea of agile leadership is very simple but difficult to implement: You have to respond to the needs of the individual employees and adapt the leadership styles.

The new employee, for example, needs a more detailed briefing because he or she does not yet know his way around and is unsure of his tasks. On the other hand, a colleague who already has the necessary experience would have more personal responsibility. Depending on the need for autonomy or eye level, you use different leadership styles for each task.

TIP: Take a look at the free PDF list with the recommended actions for the article

Challenge 2: Maturity-oriented leadership of the generations

An essential difference between the generations is a differentiated average digital affinity. Ciesielski and Schutz (2016) continue these considerations and examine the differences between the generations in attitudes towards the world of work. The following table shows the generational characteristics.

Reading tip: Generation management

digital maturity
Characteristics of the generations according to the study by Lindner and Greff (2019)

In the literature as well as in the roundtable, digital maturity was closely linked to the generations (Lindner and Greff 2018). Of course, it can be ruled out that this always applies in practice, but this should be retained in this blog article due to the simplification. The picture is from my study (Lindner and Greff 2018).

Up until a few years ago, the working world was largely adapted to the needs of Generation X (e.g. strict separation of work and private life). It is therefore important to evaluate which work models in which generation could guarantee a high level of satisfaction and thus a high level of motivation in completing the work (Lindner and Greff 2018).

Create workspaces for generations

Not every employee wants to work completely digitally and with agility. It is therefore important to create different analog and digital workspaces that the generations can use for themselves. There are two possibilities:

  • Mixed-generation teams encourage innovation and creativity
  • One-generation teams promote efficiency and collaboration

We had over 60 managers evaluate some of the working methods and assign them to a scale based on the generations. The illustration shows you how you can create such workspaces.

Workspaces for the generations (Lindner and Greff 2019)

TIP: Take a look at the free PDF list with the recommended actions for the article

Challenge 3: Virtual leadership

The manager is a key player in organizations, whose task it is not only to provide performance on different levels, but also to motivate employees to perform through specific behavior and to create optimal framework conditions for the provision of services in organizations (Konstruhardt 2016).

In order to create the right framework conditions for virtual teams, it is also up to the manager to introduce the right software tools such as video conferencing, project management software, chat systems and much more and to coach the employees with them.

Together with over 60 managers, we evaluated the factors of virtual leadership. It turns out that there are essentially two areas of tension. So on the one hand it is a question of the balance between autonomy and trust and on the other hand between the digital and the analog world.

Digital leadership
Tension of the digital leaders ( Lindner & Greff 2018 )

Reading tip: Virtual tour

Use software for leadership

Since the use of analogue has already been extensively researched, in this case we want to go into virtual guidance with software. We evaluated the satisfaction, the procedure (controlling to delegating and the task size using various software tools with over 60 executives).

Procedure for the virtual tour (Lindner and Greff 2019)

In the table you can see various tools and in the first column how satisfied the managers are with them in the virtual teamwork. You notice that e-mail in particular tends to decline in satisfaction for virtual teams and is likely to be replaced by chat systems.

In the second column you can see how the managers proceed. Is the medium used more to control or to delegate tasks quickly? For example, executives in Jira post tasks and assume that these will be done while email is more likely to be asked for a status.

The last column shows the task size. Do you tend to assign large or small tasks? While software like Jira is used to assign rather small tasks, managers discuss larger and medium-sized tasks via video conference or telephone.

TIP: Take a look at the free PDF list with the recommended actions for the article

Challenge 4: digital business models

In addition to digital leadership, another approach is the role of a digital leader in the transformation of business models. The Consulting firm Deloitte examined the role of executives in the transformation of business models in the study with 102 companies. The result was the following:

  • Leadership creates a clear vision for business model
  • The task is to break open existing silos and to optimize value creation holistically
  • The digitization of business models is a major organizational and personal challenge, and therefore also requires an outstanding leader who is not easy to find

Reading tip: What does a CDO do?

But how does a company decide which digital business model it wants to use at all? In order to answer this question, companies should analyze three aspects in particular.

  • Offer (How can the product be offered using technology?)
  • Customer benefits (In what way can the customer benefit even more from the offer by using technology?)
  • Value chain (which options for changing the value chain through technology are possible?)

Reading tip: Digital business models

Transformation of business models

We also evaluated tips for transforming business models with over 60 managers. The important tips are:

  • Change to a software company: Open up new business areas in your company and increasingly transform yourself from a product to a software company
  • Think in new patterns: Don’t just digitize old, suboptimal processes. Instead, you should integrate new concepts and approaches and completely rethink processes and services.
  • Digitize with strategy: Think of a sensible route for the transformation of your business model instead of starting out without a plan. Start digitizing where you can get results the fastest and follow this pattern as a continuous iteration.
  • To be open for smth new: The transformation of a business model often has a lot of potential, but at the same time brings many new processes with it. So stay open in terms of technology and content and analyze whether your previous partners and alliances continue to fit the transformed business model.
  • Stay close to the customer: Digitized business models clearly focus on the end customer. In order to best meet their needs, your entire projects and processes should therefore be designed for customer benefit. To do this, you should always stay in close contact with your customers and place great emphasis on user experience, customer journey and interaction design.

Conclusion: old wine in new bottles

The quote goes back to the phrase in the Bible after Matthew 9:17. Digitization brings new challenges with it, but leadership has long been shaped by dealing with new challenges. You will successfully master digitization as well!

The already known leadership styles, for example, will remain and managers should only use them at the right time in the sense of a digital world. The creation of workspaces for different generations is also a topic that currently affects leadership as well as the control of virtual teams and the transformation of business models.

Finally, I would like to give you a few recommendations for action as a digital leader, which I have also derived from my practical experience:

  • you are the Advocate for digitization . So take the helm and actively shape change as a role model!
  • You need to to be flexible . Always react accordingly to changing framework conditions and show understanding for mistakes.
  • Try using new media and tools like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram as well as Trello and Slack yourself. Be a digital pioneer!
  • You have to be a digital leader don’t know everything , but you have to get the right people on the team who have the expertise.
  • Above all, understand that Communication of diversity for men / women, cultures and generations.
  • Read a lot About organizations and management: Don’t make the same mistakes that are in every management book and organize your team as you did 20 years ago!
  • Listen to yours often intuition and Sure instinct ! Such a radical change is not a sprint, requires patience and often cannot be planned directly.


Lindner, D. (2019). SMEs in the digital transition: results of empirical studies . Wiesbaden: Springer Gabler.

Lindner, D., & Greff, T. (2019). Leadership in the age of digitization – what do managers say. HMD – Praxis der Wirtschaftsinformatik , 7th (1), 20.

Lindner, D., & Leyh, C. (2018). Organizations in Transformation: Agility as Consequence or Prerequisite of Digitization? BT – Business Information Systems. In W. Abramowicz & A. Paschke (Eds.) (Pp. 86-101). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Drawshardt, R. (2016). E-leadership: leadership and performance enhancement in digital contexts. In Success factor performance management (pp. 125-140). Wiesbaden: Springer Gabler.

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I blog about the influence of digitalization on our working world. For this purpose, I provide content from science in a practical way and show helpful tips from my everyday professional life. I am an executive in an SME and I wrote my doctoral thesis at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg at the Chair of IT Management.

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