Menu Close

How to become a digital leader

Bernard Cohen Study 2

In order to unlock the full potential of digital technologies and achieve “digital transformation”, your company must foster a digital leadership structure, writes Stijn Viaene for The European Business Review.

The economy is digitising, and it’s vital your company keeps pace with the change and invests in a process of transformation driven by digital technologies such as Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud and Internet of Things (SMACIT).

The aim of this “digital transformation” is to enable your company to identify opportunities and take advantage of them quicker than your competitors.

A digital leadership structure incorporating “digital-savvy champions” representing four leadership personas – the vigilant leader, the voyager leader, the visionary leader and the vested leader – is integral to a successful digital transformation.


Vigilance is key to navigating the turbulent waters of the digitising economy, a “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment”.

“Winners are forever sharp-eyed, fascinated and circumspect,” writes Viaene. The vigilant leader must be alert to changes in customer behaviour, the actions of competitors (established players and newcomers), digital possibilities and market disruptions. They must be ready to change course if necessary.

Miroslaw Forystek, chief information officer for ING Bank Slaski (Poland), is an example of a vigilant leader. Forystek’s IT department is responsible for monitoring the market and ensuring that leaders throughout the company are made aware of promising startups and new technologies. This information is used to highlight threats and growth opportunities each quarter.

If you want to be a vigilant leader like Forystek you must:

1) Make sense of data. Information is only useful if it can be understood and used to your company’s advantage. Employ your hard-won knowledge of the market to identify possible opportunities, inspire creative thinking and stimulate innovation.

2) Decode the VUCA business environment. Your company is operating in a complex environment. It’s your job to make it it easier for your colleagues to understand what is happening. Create a common frame of reference for talking about it. If you do this successfully, your colleagues will be better able to imagine what the future could and should look like and how to work towards that future.

3) Lead by example. Vigilance is not a solo effort. Share data and insights and encourage your colleagues to look outwards and gain a better understanding of the market.

Think of yourself as a cartographer, charting the territory so that others can explore it without getting lost.


The vigilant leader has laid the strong foundation for your company’s digital transformation. Now you, the voyager leader, must build on that foundation. It’s your job to assemble teams of talented individuals and provide them with the tools and working methods they need to make the ideas – inspired by the vigilant leaders knowledge of the market – a reality.

Garry Lyons, chief innovation officer for MasterCard, is an example of a voyager leader. “Business innovation can, and should, be a repeatable process,” says Lyons. “Like any science, you need robust methods and structured techniques to get results.”

MasterCard’s “long-term vision” is to become a leading digital innovator in global payments. The company has set up MasterCard Labs, “a global network of digital innovation accelerator teams”, in order to achieve this ambition.

MasterCard, like many digital innovators, has been inspired by American entrepreneur Eric Ries’ bestselling 2011 book The Lean Startup, which provides a methodology for creating new products and services. The aim is to shorten the process of developing new products and services, focusing on experimentation and learning from doing.


Unsurprisingly, your role as a visionary leader is to envisage your company’s future, “to paint an engaging and energising picture of the enterprise's future that banks on the opportunities of the digital economy”. What does your company need to do to excel in this future environment?

Examples of individuals and companies that utilised digital technologies to gain a competitive edge are:

  • Marc Benioff – founder, chairman and CEO of cloud computing company Salesforce, and creator of the “platform as a service”, which enables unskilled users to create apps;
  • John Deere – agricultural equipment manufacturer and early adopter of Internet of Things (IoT); and
  • Sree Sreenivasan – chief digital officer for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, who revolutionised visitors’ online experience of the museum.

Visionary leaders challenge their company’s “core capabilities”, i.e. purpose. What do your customers need from you now? What will they need in the future?

Collaboration with suitable partners to create new value – a willingness to “grow the pie together” – is sure to be part of this digitally interconnected future.

London’s Smart London plan is an example of this sort of collaboration. “Londoners generate the data that helps the city manage its transport, social, economic and environmental systems,” states the official website of the Mayor of London (london.gov.uk). “Digital technology presents opportunities for the capital to use this data to function better, and for Londoners to help shape and be a part of these solutions.”


Take on the role of vested leader and you will be responsible for defining a holistic vision of how your company should operate. You’ll also institute a process for achieving that vision. “Vested leaders act as enterprise architects at the highest level,” writes Viaene. An enterprise architect “applies architectural principles and practices to guide organisations through transformation”.

You are an enabler. Your job is to create an environment that empowers individuals and allows them to flourish. “Today’s business leaders enable others to come together and achieve results,” writes Viaene.


It is vital that you build a team combining the talents of all four leadership personas. “The real trick to successful digital transformation is to connect all of the personas in a virtuous loop,” writes Viaene.

Start the process of digital transformation now. Assess your strengths, identify what type of leadership persona you possess, and set about finding talented, forward-looking colleagues suited to fulfilling the remaining three leadership roles.


Source Article: What Digital Leadership Does
Author(s): Stijn Viaene