Evolving Leadership in the Digital Age

By Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

To become more effective and reflective leaders, executives need to learn to improve their behavioural reactions to difficult situations and develop greater emotional intelligence.


The central theme of this article is to make executives more reflective and effective leaders. To accomplish this objective, transformational experiences are needed. To enable this to happen, to “Know Thyself” becomes an important credo. Many executives seem to be strangers to themselves with often-disastrous consequences. To accomplish transformational experiences, a number of questions need to be addressed: Why have many executives so little self-knowledge? Why do so many executives behave in a self-destructive manner? Why are so many executives unable to get the best out of their people? Why do so many executive teams function poorly? And why do so many organisations have a gulag-like atmosphere? To deal with these various challenges, the article describes the “Challenge of Leadership” program given at INSEAD which has become a base for making executives more “soft-skill” sensitive – “soft skills” being the “hardest skills.” This program (and the ones that have been build on it) has made INSEAD famous for its ability to create transformational experiences.



Organisations that take leadership development seriously outperform organisations that ignore this important matter. This holds greater truth today when leaders in this cyber age find themselves under greater (and increasing) pressures in our rapidly changing world. Twenty-five years ago, very little attention was being paid to the idiosyncrasies and irrational processes that make up individual behaviour. Corporations and business schools were preoccupied with models of the rational economic man, not realising that executives are everything but rational decision makers. The emotional aspects of leadership, the importance of more intangible factors such as corporate culture was all but ignored. The emphasis seemed to be on more cognitive-behavioural models to understand leadership behaviour while little or no attention was paid to the subtle, out-of-awareness psychodynamic processes that very much influence the way executives make decisions. These more traditional models will have only limited use as executives today face the added complications of rapidly changing technologies, organisational matrix-like structures, and virtual working teams separated by cultural and geographical boundaries, combined with the difficulties of making decisions when faced with an overload of information. The ability to reinvent oneself in this ever faster changing world has become more important than ever before.


Tipping points

Recently a former participant from one of my “Challenge of Leadership” (COL) programs approached me at a fundraising event in Holland and introduced himself. It had been 15 years since he took my seminar. Initially, I couldn’t place his face. But always being on the lookout for feedback, which I find more valuable many years on, I asked him whether the program had an impact and he told me yes, in fact it had taught him three things. In the first place, it helped him have the courage to quit his job and become an entrepreneur which had made him very wealthy. Secondly, it helped him change his relationship with his son, that improved the quality of his life, and thirdly, he had learned to be less of a micro-manager, to be able to let go, and empower others. In fact, what happened to him during the COL program was the creation of tipping points, the kind of “aha” moments that had given him the insight he needed to change or develop his behaviour in a way that better supported his personal and organisational goals.

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