A digital culture of leadership

Feb 3, 2017

Translation of the Original Article by Siegfried Lautenbacher 

"The special thing about cultures is that they are not formed by proclamation, but are created by themselves. How employees work together in organizations, how they treat customers and how conflicts are avoided is a fact of life in the organization, and not  by organizational topical proclaim ideals" (Stefan Kühl).

Cultures can neither be made nor implemented. This statement also applies to the cultural characteristics of leadership in companies, and - not to forget - the guiding principles of management and digital leaders.

Picture: Brian - Empowerment on Flickr. Use under the Creative Commons (BY-SA) conditions.

The confusion is unmistakable, the number of well-intentioned proposals is unmanageable, and the outcome is unmistakable. It is amazing how many different thoughts about leadership in digital organizations there are. Even more astonishing is the fact that on the one hand, there are very self-referential repetitions of supposedly necessary characteristics of digital leaders, whereas there is almost no recourse to the present findings on the context of leadership in organizations. For the time being, therefore, it is only clear that with the outdated understanding of management, no game can be won. The call for the so-called digital leaders is also not really helpful, as I (together with my colleague Alexander Klier) have already discussed here. Because, according to my basic conviction, it is not a matter of fixation on personal characteristics, or, even more so, the fixation on paid people (via job placement), if one wants to organize leadership in the digital age. Already analogous, the actual conduct of behavior is never to be explained solely based on personal characteristics, because the situation has just as great an influence as the structures and processes within which leadership takes place. The desired conduct, as a normative prescription, is, in any case, a part of what is commonly described as corporate culture. Already analogous, the actual conduct behavior is never to be explained solely on the basis of personal characteristics, since the situation has just as great an influence as the structures and processes within which leadership takes place. The desired leadership behavior in the different proposals is - as a normative requirement - already a part of what is commonly described as corporate culture.


Leadership is a cultural group phenomenon...

"We do not need better managers, but different frameworks" (Bernd Oesterreich & Claudia Schröder, S. 13).


The phenomenon of leadership can be determined in a broad sense wherever the organization of social coexistence of people is concerned. So it always has to do with exercising power or to get people to do certain things that the theoretical discussion on leadership can be traced back to the ancient philosophy (for example, Plato's Republic). This phenomenon is already differentiated in the organizational theories. It is important not only to guide the entire company, but also to think about the extent to which leadership can be demonstrated and organized through structures and processes (so-called leadership substitutes). It is most apparent in anthropology that leadership is at least a process of interchange between some particular "leader" and the following people. Michael Tomasello describes very nicely how social rules and, above all, rules of behavior (norms) develop for the participants from the collaborative cooperation in groups normally and very spontaneously. The norms and rules eventually become institutional and solidify culturally, in order to demand and at the same time to secure a corresponding action of humans, for example in organizations.

One of the most important security functions here is that the respective culture, as the sum of the rules and beliefs that become unwritten laws, will enable internal integration as well as an adaptation of the company to environmental conditions. Through the culture every organization gets its own and unmistakable identity, also with regard to the specific design of leadership. In the sense of a (long) tradition, it becomes clear that there were and are very different concepts and approaches of leadership, which are not always fixed on executives (leaders). The persistent reference to digital leaders, as expressed in the context of digital transformation, illustrates, in my view, one thing above all: the cultural model of a Tayloristic organization is deeply rooted in the minds. From a social point of view, leaders have been, and are, a necessary condition for Tayloristic organizations, because "scientific management" is realized and implemented. Even the digital leader will not change This digital socio-technical function – even if he has virtuous qualities.

... and a piece of social technology.

"It is also obvious that these and similar concepts lose their foundations when a company introduces other organizational principles, such as project-, network-, clan organization, or other approaches, which strongly build on the self-control of the system " (Lutz von Rosenstiel, pg. 8).


Structurally, Leadership represents a group phenomenon that involves the interaction between the group members and aims to achieve goals through influencing communication processes. Proper designing of the communication processes is a core element of digital leadership tasks as well as a piece of social technology. However, in the sense of a supportive corporate culture, the other organizational structures and support processes are to be designed in such a way as to enable a successful management of groups and teams. Also, at this level it would be quite counterproductive to pay attention only to the concretely acting people in the management context, because the situational environment and the normative claim are just as decisive for a leadership success. The most important consideration that follows for me, is that leadership in digitally transformed companies can no longer be understood as a position with an attributed certain person - qua qualification, training or simply due to (power) relations. Rather, these must be "roles", which are flexibly occupied by a mandate, where flexible means to select the persons according to the characteristics that are necessary to implement the task at hand in the best possible way.

As with any technology, it can only be brought to life by encouraging the affected people to use it. The way I see it, using digital technologies in terms of agile leadership for one requires that the roles be filled jointly. On the other hand, people from the circle of the respective groups and teams have to make themselves available for the leadership role, the special tasks and to exercise them temporarily. That this is expressly desired in the company is a normative requirement of the corresponding company culture. However, as a (unwritten) act of encouragement, it cannot be ordered (hierarchically), but must become a cultural leadership practice. A corresponding transformation of the organizational structures and processes represents a corporate cultural act of empowerment, so that a corresponding action can follow the encouragement. For a digital organization in the cultural transition, one can then state with complete justification: Encouragement is the last task of the leaders, empowerment is the last act of the hierarchical order.