Digital-ready leadership skills

The fusion of different technologies in the digital, physical and biological spheres is disrupting businesses and organizations the world over. Commonly referred to these days as the 4th Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, this phenomenon is having a profound impact on the way we live, learn, work, and relate to each other. Thusly, leaders require certain skills attuned to the new organization of today and of the future.

But before we discourse on this, let me sum up the evolution of industrial revolutions and the types of leadership that dwelt during those times.

First Industrial Revolution, which took place from the 18th to the 19th centuries in Europe and America, was the period of the development of mechanical production, railroads, and steam engine, which paved the way for growth of the iron and textile industries. A key figure during this time was George Stephenson, a civil and Mechanical engineer, who was responsible for the building of the first public inter-city railway line in England to use steam locomotives in the world. He was a hardworking and tireless entrepreneur who pushed the boundaries of the railway business. Hard work and persistence were the central qualities of leaders during this period.

The Second Industrial Revolution, which unfolded between 1870 and 1914, was a period of advancement in electrical power that led to breakthrough inventions and innovations, such as the telephone, light bulb, phonograph, and mass production. The likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison lead this era characterized by inventiveness and management skill in running and building an enterprise.

The Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the Digital Revolution which started during the 1980s, was led by advancements in electronics, computers and automated production; and later, developments in the internet and the information and communication technology. Key business figures in this era were Steve Jobs and Bill Gate, who apart from displaying technical prowess, also grew their enterprise through innovativeness and hard-nosed management.

In this time of 4IR, the central figures are Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Elon Musk of Telsa and SpaceX.

Nadella places empathy at the heart of Microsoft’s transformation for rebuilding its culture. He said it “will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before.” It’s about understanding and feeling what customers experience; and has three components — listening, trusting, and understanding.

On the other hand, Pichai believes it is important to build an organisation where people want to work together and set up collaborative cultures. Collaboration is Google’s in order to innovate. It is a working practice whereby individuals work together to a common purpose to achieve business benefit.

Lastly, for Musk “it was never about money, but solving problems for the future of humanity”. He is solving a lot of society’s complex problems — from providing inexpensive electric cars, to making space travel affordable, to colonizing Mars. It’s about finding solutions to novel, ill-defined problems in complex, real-world settings. He makes decisions through assigning probabilities to each alternative. Complex problem-solving is a combination of three other skills — critical thinking, creativity and data analytics.

These modern-day leaders of the 4IR exemplify the practice of the three digital-ready skills – empathy, collaboration, and complex problem-solving. In fact, these are the distillation of the two-decade long study at Google which discovered that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills, which I have summarized to three — empathy, collaboration, and complex problem-solving, and they are all interconnected.

The commonality between empathy and collaboration is communication. Empathy is practiced through communicating with people — the self-same skill that is required to practice collaboration. On the other hand, collaboration intersects with problem-solving through a skill called teaming and finding solutions. Teaming promotes a sense of belonging and enhances motivation within a group, which are necessary for effective collaboration. They are also important in solving complex problems, as diverse team members contribute to finding a solution to a complex problem.

What’s working well among Filipinos is that we are naturally emphatic toward others. It’s a quality we have that enables us to be probably the most hospitable and customer-oriented country in the world.

Teamwork and teaming are also natural to us. We are more motivated and effective working in teams rather than individually, based on numerous studies. Hence, it is easy to train and develop collaboration among Filipino workers.

But what’s more challenging is how to develop complex problem-solving skill among Filipinos – a skill that requires critical thinking, which has been degrading due to the rote pedagogy of the education system in the country.

In the age of artificial intelligence, these three skills emerge as indispensable.