What Digital Leadership Does

By Stijn Viaene

Leadership has been an indispensable factor in any business development. As businesses undergo digital transformation, Stijn Viaene offers exciting insight on digital leadership, the different leadership personas required for its execution, and the crucial role digital leadership plays for a successful digital transformation.


The digitising economy is compelling business leaders to cultivate a profoundly new mind-set and invest in new technology-driven capabilities for winning. Many are engaging in digital transformation: a form of end-to-end, integrated business transformation where digital technologies play a dominant role. These transformations involve rediscovering the nature of value creation, growing new core capabilities, and developing new skills. They are executed against the backdrop of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment, catalysed by digitisation.

Digital transformation leaders position their organisations to lead with Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud and Internet of Things (SMACIT) technologies, but also to be led by them in their search for organisational agility – their organisation’s capacity to routinely identify and capture opportunities more quickly than their rivals. One way to understand how to lead a digital transformation is by studying how effective business leaders connect ideas and people to develop opportunities and capabilities. I use this 2×2 framework (Figure 1) to synthesise my views from working with digital transformation practitioners:

Figure 1: Leadership personas enabling digital transformation

Digital transformation leaders position their organisations to lead with Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud and Internet of Things (SMACIT) technologies.

According to this model, successful digital transformation leadership, a matter of action rather than position, requires a combination of 4 leadership personas: the vigilant, the voyager, the visionary, and the vested leader. Adoption of these personas by you and your team will enable you to effectively capture value from digital transformation.


The Vigilant Leader

It’s not enough to have the courage and confidence to take a team out into new digital territories – in times of turbulence, vigilance is required. This means being constantly alert, curious and attentive to changes in customer behaviour, digital affordances, competitors, market disruptions and new entrants, and being ready to pivot when necessary. Winners are forever sharp-eyed, fascinated and circumspect. Their watchful demeanour allows their organisation to act quickly on the earliest, most feeble signs.

Mirosław Forystek, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at ING Bank Śląski (Poland), is an example of a vigilant leader. One of his IT group’s key responsibilities is to make sure business leaders across the board are aware of emerging technology options. This allows them to become digital leaders. The IT team constantly monitors the market for promising start-ups and new technologies:

“Our radar identifies trends and positions signals from outside. Using these data we try to figure out, for example, what digital start-ups are doing. We combine data from multiple sources, including reports from companies like Gartner, Forrester, BCG and others, but also use input from meetings with our vendors and from scouting at events. We are aware that the vast amount of data sources cannot possibly all be scanned manually. That’s why we are trying to use machine learning and data mining to help us filter and summarise.”

Senior management at ING uses this “technology radar” capability to spot and assess threats and growth opportunities on a quarterly basis. The vigilant practice is designed to create awareness and inform ING decision-makers, as well as to strengthen alignment.

More than data hoarders, leaders, like Forystek, are data sense-makers. They enable the organisation to make sense of what is really happening beyond the periphery, seeding idea generation with interesting perspectives, connecting weak signals and ideas, and uncovering possibly underlying hypotheses or opportunities. They decode the VUCA environment for others by helping to build a common frame of reference for talking productively about what is out there. Good framing avoids distractions and makes it easier for everyone to see interesting future scenarios, agree on a focus, and plan the collaborative transformation journey ahead.

Vigilant leaders understand that they must foster this observant, mindful behaviour in others. They lead by example, encouraging others to look outside the organisation and focus externally, stimulating exploration and external expeditions to develop strategic foresight and perception. Smart leaders don’t wait for these reflexes to develop by accident – they purposefully create tools and practices that are embedded into the organisational fabric. They fully commit to exploiting the power of readily available digital technologies to monitor, analyse, synthesise and share a wide array of data to stay current and identify business opportunities in a real-time world.

  Please login or register to continue reading... Registration is simple and it is free!

About the Author

Stijn Viaene is a Full Professor and Partner at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. He is the Director of the school’s Digital Transformation strategic focus area. He is also a Professor in the Decision Sciences and Information Management Department at KU Leuven.


1. Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business (USA).
2. Christensen, C.M. & Raynor, M.E. (2013). “The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth”. Harvard Business Review Press (USA).
3. Greater London Authority (2013). “Smart London Plan”. Source: 
http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/smart_london_plan.pdf  See also Update Report (2016). Source: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_smartlondon_report_web_4.pdf 

4. Greater London Authority (2016). “Data for London – A City Data Strategy”. Source: https://files.datapress.com/london/dataset/data-for-london-a-city-data-strategy/2016-05-19T15:39:34/London%20City%20Data%20Strategy%20March%202016.pdf
5. Ross, J.W., Beath, C.M. & Sebastian, I. (2015). “Why Nordstrom’s Digital Strategy Works (and Yours Probably Doesn’t)”. Harvard Business Review, January 14. [/ms-protect-content]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here