The nature of good leadership in digital times

"The nature of good leadership in digital times"

by Dr. Andrea Sibylle Claussen

This article is intended to do one thing above all: help make sense of what is happening right now, and interpret the current state of the digital world with regards to work environments and what this means for leadership.

Similarly, with the rise of technology and online-based work being integrated into the very fabric of our lives, we are asked to prepare ourselves as leaders, and as people for the future. We are asked to anticipate, not being taken by surprise, but rather change before being changed. Within a business context we may view this as a form of “preventive medicine” of collapse or organizational implosion, whereby we need to ask ourselves pertinent questions such as, “How do I need to position myself and my organization to stay in balance, maintain equilibrium and build resilience, in the midst of the digital era?”

Currently we need to ask ourselves, what is "the nature” of good leadership?

Where is the origin, the root, the essence of good leadership?

It is a search for clues within the triad: nature - digital working world - leadership.

At its core, leadership means that a group of people follows a single person. Therefore, a leader is meaningless if others do not follow him or her.

The motivation as to why others follow is manifold; because they have to, otherwise there is a threat or punishment. Because they want to, or because they identify with the goal. Because they like it, and because it feels good to form a community - a community held together by a leader or leadership "force."

Originally, leaders were people with special skills. These skills were useful for the community, the village, or the country. A leader was a person (man or woman), with rooted courage and special achievements for the community in areas such as hunting, healing, special wisdom and warfare.

Thus, the goal of the leader was to ensure food and security, orientation and a higher purpose in the broadest sense of a stable equilibrium and balance.

Today, leadership is caught up in the tension of a fast-paced, ever-changing, complex society. The days of a sole focus on making profit are over, and in addition to regular business needs and initiatives, there is an increasing emphasis that demands to be placed upon restoring the health of our planet, and fulfilling needs for meaning, values, justice and ethically correct action, whilst maintaining the integral wellbeing of the company, its employees and oneself in the process.

Digitization evidently has the capacity to create large disruption, because people are forced to swiftly adapt to new systems in an attempt to avoid being left behind.

The current notion remains set in the opinion that digitization of such systems,

is essentially important and positive by nature, even if it represents a major challenge for every company. The realization that technology is rapidly evolving into the backbone of all communications is evidently something that all businesses are forced to reconcile. We are told that business and society will run with smooth efficiency in the light of technology, however we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question, “why is this the case?”

The message of the digitalization narrative states that: AFTER the changeover, and after the chaotic transition phase, everything will be better. But WHAT exactly will be better?

Digitization currently works on the principle of a promise of hope. However, it seems that we've all forgotten why we're digitizing in the first place. Are we doing it because everyone is doing it, and because it seems "right”? In a holistic sense, are we really better off as humans on this planet if we digitize at all costs?

Is it actually permissible to ask this question without raising eyebrows?

We believe that if we don't do it (digitize) then others will overtake us, and we will lose market share and customers. That's probably true. But will the people whose world is supposed to get better and who work with digital systems really be taken along in this transition process?

Above all, will we really become healthier and happier?

I have noticed that many people have "digitization-fatigue”. They no longer understand the overarching meaning. Everything is becoming more chaotic and more stressful.   Similarly, many people are uncertain that they will be able to keep their job after successful digitization, because their skills may be taken over by algorithms and AI.

According to a study by the Word Economic Forum, a wave of "reskilling" will soon be necessary, which means that people will have to be retrained (1).

Recently, a colleague who falls under the category of 10-hour-a-day Zoom meetings said, "I feel disembodied."

Clients say, "I'm zoom tired. It sucks."

At the same time, there are clients who say, "Home office is great. I can exercise regularly and eat healthier. I feel better than ever and don't want to go back to the old pre-COVID state.

"Dis-embodiment" is a state of imbalance:

Thinking with our current pace of information processing in correspondence with virtual contacts, displaces the sensual experience of contact itself. All of the subtle nuances, mundane daily rituals, and connections within one’s day, such as: the journey to work, meeting even the most annoying colleagues at the coffee machine, feeling the wind whilst riding  your bicycle, brief contact with the elbow of the neighbor on the bus, an intense eye-contact moment or handshake are currently all near impossible experiences.

There are alarming studies that COVID is not only a virological event, such as Long-Covid with respiratory distress, but that there is also an epidemic in the area of mental health, chronic anxiety, loneliness, drifting into virtual worlds, and even bordering confusion between what is virtual and reality.

Adults currently spend an average of 10 hours in front of a screen, children and adolescents 6 hours.

There is a peak in mental illness, as well as incapacity to work due to the psyche now surpassing cancer (2). Therefore, there is a great need for more action guidelines for managers in this area. (3)

The question remains, how much of a dose of "digital" can humans tolerate?

And to what extent does life in the virtual, digital space effect our perception of the world and of ourselves?

Lastly, what does this have to do with leadership?

Here, the tension between the "nature", the original state of leadership in conjunction with the deepest "meaning" of leadership, and the added value of digitalization becomes clear.

Leadership means being in relationship, and digital leadership carries the risk of a loss of relationship, and an alienation of meaning.

“Digital” means loss of direct interpersonal contact (without a screen in between), without body language, without sensory perception of the other person, without deceleration, without longer silence between words, without space where nothing happens.

Being digitally connected creates a connection that happens almost exclusively on the cognitive level. It evidently works, as it stopped the world from nearing a complete standstill during COVID. But what does "digital" do to our souls?

As a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM, the tension of leadership in digital times reminds me of the principle of Yin & Yang. I have used this model therapeutically as a doctor for decades, and as a leadership coach, I have to now ask myself, Is "digital" yin or yang?

First, a brief explanation of what Yin and Yang means;

Yin is the quality that receives, listens, exudes empathy, waits, is passive, reflects, connects, preserves. Yin can also be described as a feminine energy that, nurtures, provides, cares and empathizes. Yin is the seed that is still in the earth before it sprouts. The “primal nature of yin” is night, cold, moon, water.

Yang is the quality that creates, is active, changes, heats up. A necessary energy for innovation and efficiency. Yang can be described as the masculine energy that focuses, drives processes, pushes and aims high. Higher, faster, further. The "primal nature" of yang is day, heat, sun, fire.

So, we may ask ourselves as I have done, “Is digitalization yin or yang?”

I have settled on it being yang. These yang qualities can be reflected within faster and faster computing power, algorithms that recognize and merge data in milliseconds. High efficiency performance that is replacing slower human work by means of machines and artificial intelligence. Higher, faster, further.

However, what do we want to get faster and more efficient for?

Is it an added value in itself to become more efficient, and more YANG? And most importantly, at what cost?

Through this digitization, the perceptive capacity of our senses is changing. Part of our being atrophies, like a muscle that is not used and this includes the muscle of empathy and intuition. We run the risk of becoming “screen-spirit beings”. (merely a face on a screen)

The digital world is more non-committal. It is easier for us to disengage. We click the mute-button and turn off the video, thus having nothing to do with what's happening for now.

Facial expressions, body tension, and everything that is not visible on the zoom-screen, including shoes, pants, socks, becomes invisible. I present myself only with a "section" of myself - the most necessary for functioning in everyday work.

If possible, I "mute" myself (turn off my microphone) or turn off the video. I'm there, but not really. I am partially there. I can turn myself and others off. I can say: “Oh, the connection is gone”, when I've had enough. I can disconnect when I don't feel like it anymore. And I know my colleagues are also “Screen-spirit beings”, their attention only partly with me. They may also click themselves away from me at any time. Digitally, I don't have to put up with exhausting colleagues. I have more freedom. But is this a deceptive freedom?

My hypothesis is that the Corona pandemic has accelerated the topic of digitalization necessity much like a particle accelerator; a curse and a blessing at the same time.

Without digitization, economic life would have collapsed. In large parts, with the aid of technology, the economy could continue to function. This is where the benefits have become apparent. Digital means we can remain connected and networked. Disembodied, but connected. In relationship, but different than before.

However, as we have observed, this is not without consequence. In some cases, employees actually worked more than before. Some hardly ate and seldom went to the toilet. There was no longer a separation between private and professional life, but rather everything intimately intertwined with the growing permanence of online platforms.

There were winners and losers and the topic of self-leadership, self-management, discipline and structure has shown itself in a completely new context. People have found and lost themselves in the digital world, depending on their personality structure and current life situation.

In the context of the yin and yang principle, there needs to be a balance to the digital yang energy of efficiency and increasing obsession with constant upgrading to faster, bigger and better inventions. If digital means “disembodiment through exertion of the yang”, then it needs to be balanced by the yin, i.e. the activation of the senses. Sensory perception of the outside world means not only functioning on a purely cognitive level, but rather a perception of the world with all the senses, including the so-called “gut feeling” of intuition - and the ability of self-control, which has to do with mastering one's own inner "sensory system". Always remembering to check in with oneself regarding when a necessary break is required, or furthermore a digital detox.

Within the digital era we all run the risk of becoming a "screen-spirit-being"; merely a face on a screen. Something that only thinks and is supposed to perform as if everything were "normal".

Is the Long Covid Syndrome of digitalization the rise of social phobias and anxiety disorders, including the belief in anonymous powers that can invade our bodies, and rule us in the future? These are all questions of relevance that the digital era is increasingly bringing to the forefront.

Conclusion: What does this mean for leadership in digital times?

The answer may lie within increasing one's own perception. This includes strengthening the yin, since the yang tends to overheat easily.

In concrete terms, this means above all; mindfulness, self-leadership, cultivating self-awareness, observation and insight, and critical thinking. These are all yin elements.

And where can I best exercise the muscle I need as a leader in the digital world?

Beyond the "digital wall," outside the screen. In the middle of life, in a natural environment.

In an environment that appeals to all the senses, which exists as the outdoors.

Wind, temperature, sounds, smells, moving with your own body, sweating, meeting other people of flesh and blood, being surprised by an observation or encounter because we didn't know we could have experienced it that way before.

The principles of yin and yang can be perceived in one's own body if one "exposes" oneself to a natural environment over a longer period of time. Only then it becomes perceptible that we as “digital” humans have to be connected with the laws of nature from time to time.

This includes an alternation between action and rest, noise and silence, action and non-action, tension and relaxation, preservation and change, closeness and distance.

Within our changing society, we need the balance of both the digital world and regular and conscious contact with the "natural”, sensual world in order to maintain a stable balance within companies.

In the digital world, we need a balance to the digital yang which becomes the sensual world of nature, small adventures where people can feel themselves in their bodies and use the capacity of their senses to truly engage with their surroundings on a visceral level.

Leadership now requires us to consider both aspects of Yin and Yang and the "nature" of change, as both are equally necessary for success, and imperative for growth.

Sources (in German):

(1)   Quelle: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/?utm_campaign=601a821b5954dd0001931c1c&utm_content=60ba3bec2c85c60001457712&utm_medium=smarpshare&utm_source=linkedin)

(2)   https://www.cash-online.de/versicherungen/2021/dak-psychische-erkrankungen-auf-hoechststand-im-corona-jahr/559358

(3)   https://www.barmer.de/formClient/barmer-de/unsere-leistungen/mediencenter/8180/broschuerencenter,step=.html?pdf-webcode=a001488

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