The concept of virtual leadership is not an invention of the Corona pandemic. In the early 1990s, scientific papers discussed the “virtual enterprise”, and “e-leadership” emerged as a new concept in 2000. With the current situation, however, “digital leadership” has suddenly been pulled out of its niche existence, becoming a global reality. Yet, what exactly does that mean?
First of all, this development concerns the way in which we pass on information. What used to be communicated in meetings or during chats in the kitchenette now has to reach the employees in a different way. Online forums or specialised software facilitate the provision and exchange of contents. As a result, employees have more comprehensive access to information and benefit from greater transparency.
The advantages are obvious: leaders can communicate faster and, thus, improve the performance of their organisations. This, however, puts them under enormous pressure to communicate clearly and directly. Inundated with e-mails, some leaders may be inclined to be less careful in stressful situations.
A different access to information also implies a change in the way this information can be controlled. When and how information becomes available, is published, and finally accessed can no longer be fully controlled by the company and its leaders. Rather, it depends to some extent on the initiative of the employees when and how facts – and also opinions and assessments – are spread on the Internet or intranet. This possible loss of control is the starting point for the concept of open leadership, for enterprise 2.0. The result is a new ratio between openness and control.
The next, and biggest, challenge emerging from open leadership will probably be interpersonal relationships: the distance between leaders and employees is not just a spacial distance – it also extends to social and cultural aspects. Thus, to establish a personal relationship on an equal footing becomes even more challenging. How can this difficulty be resolved? A Zoom conference is simply not a meeting or a face-to-face conversation. Consequently, leaders are far more often confronted with being in demand as relationship managers.
What skills do they need as relationship managers? In addition to being able to use electronic media, leaders need to be good at communicating in person and showing an understanding of mistakes. They should have a considerable amount of social and intercultural competence to be able to accept the power shift brought about by open leadership, to overcome the distance and systematically build trust. Leaders who manage to get their employees on board even in such a difficult situation come close to a participatory leadership style.
In times like these, there are a good many creative solutions available for adopting team-strengthening measures at a distance. One of my favourites is cooking together. By way of example, take a look at Daniel Finger’s live cooking events at https://cookzu.de/. (The name of the show, “cookzu”, sounds like the German word for the imperative “watch!”.)
Next week, in the second part of my “virtual leadership” blog series, you will read how the digital options we have further change the relationship between leaders and their employees.
When preparing for my first online lecture on virtual leadership at FOM University of Applied Sciences for Economy & Management (which forms the basis for this blog series), I got interesting insights from the following authors:
Peter M. Wald, Lang, R., Rybnikova, I. (2014): Aktuelle Führungstheorien und -konzepte, Wiesbaden
Buhse, W. (2014). Management by Internet. Kulmbach: Plassen