Developing the Practice of Online Leadership: Lessons From the Field

Developing the Practice of Online Leadership: Lessons From the Field

Bonnie Cheuk (Euroclear, UK) and Jane McKenzie (University of Reading, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4094-6.ch013


Online leadership largely develops through practice: taking the first steps into what seems a relatively uncontrollable environment is scary. Learning to adapt one's leadership style to suit conditions in the online world is an experimental process that benefits from coaching and guidance from experienced online leaders. This chapter distils 10 years of recent experience the first author gained helping senior managers develop an influential online presence at the same time as implementing digital strategies in three organizations. It starts with a brief review of face-to-face leadership theory, which most leaders encounter in traditional development programs, identifies how online practice differs, explores the phases of a typical leader's journey from conscious incompetence to conscious competence online, and highlights practical interventions that both develop capability and diffuse change organization wide. It concludes with a summary of useful characteristics for change agents supporting the enterprise transformation, which is usually the aim of a move to online working.
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Ubiquitous online connectivity has significant implications for enterprise leadership: globalization, democratization of influence (Shirky, 2010; Tapscott & Williams, 2006), cyber-security risks, access to big data, radical discontinuities fuelled by innovation, crowd sentiment, or market upheaval combine to produce a degree of complexity and unpredictability that undermine the efficacy of conventional conceptualisations of leadership, largely exercised face to face. Planning, direction and control of a reasonably contained enterprise in a relatively stable environment is no longer the norm. In what McAfee dubbed Enterprise 2.0 (2006), direction comes through lateral interactions rather than detailed planning: networks of knowledgeable individuals across cultures combine their collective intelligence to interpret directional intent in complex conditions (Bonabeau, 2009), using the ‘cognitive surplus’ (Shirky, 2010) in the network and the so-called ‘wisdom of crowds’ (Surowiecki, 2005). Critically, then, formal power in the upper echelons of the organization no longer affords control. Leadership becomes a collective practice both amongst the top management team (TMT) and distributed more widely amongst those with insights relevant to the situation. It emerges when people forge collaborative relationships that become influential within an organizational system and share responsibility for outcomes (Bolden, 2011). Often those relationships are mediated by technology. The most influential forces shape the adaptation of the organizational system. Such disaggregation of power, reliance on meritocracy and community concern, potentially allows an enterprise to make better use of available knowledge in the network, better decisions, learn faster and become more agile and adaptable (McKenzie & Van Winkelen, 2004). In the long term, these are crucial factors for dynamic capabilities (Teece, 2007, 2014; Teece, Pisano, & Shuen, 1997) that allow organizations to ‘survive and thrive in turbulent times’ (Economist, 2009), because they heighten collective capacity to sense signals, seize opportunities and respond innovatively in what has been called a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (Pasmore & O'Shea, 2010).

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