Magazine Spring 2019 Issue Research Feature

How Digital Leadership Is(n’t) Different

Leaders must blend traditional and new skills to effectively guide their organizations into the future.

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When describing the new digital reality for organizations, people tend to fall into two camps. Some argue that the future will be more like the past than not, agreeing with the sentiment, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1 Others think the future will be more novel, believing, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen: It is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.”2

Either way you look at it, as organizations seek their footing in a turbulent business environment, they require strong leaders at the helm. Senior leaders must not only articulate a vision people can rally around but also create the conditions that enable digital maturity, attracting the best talent and bringing out the best in the talent they attract. The rapid changes associated with digital disruption can be disorienting, so many of us assume the leadership handbook must be completely rewritten for the digital age. Is this true? Or are greater and greater levels of uncertainty causing us to neglect the essentials? Is it possible the leadership challenges of the digital world are more the same than different but we are overly focused on what’s different because we are so alarmed by the threats to the status quo?

There is something to be said for both arguments. Over the past five years, in a joint research project with MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte, we have studied how business and leadership are changing as a result of digital disruption. (See “About the Research.”) We have found that while many core leadership skills remain the same, the particular demands of digital disruption call for certain new skills as well. Here, we will explore which are which and what we can learn from organizations that are digitally maturing — that is, those that have been transformed by digital technologies and capabilities that improve processes, engage talent across the organization, and drive new value-generating business models.

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What Makes Digital Leadership Different

Leaders face new challenges as a result of digital disruption.

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About the Authors

Gerald C. Kane (@profkane) is a professor of information systems at Boston College and the faculty director of the Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship. Anh Nguyen Phillips (@anhphillips) is a researcher and author from Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research, where she leads research on digital transformation. Jonathan Copulsky (@jcopulsky) teaches marketing at Northwestern University and serves as program director for the Kellogg Executive Education Business Marketing course. Garth Andrus (@garth_ot) is currently a principal and global leader of Digital DNA solutions at Deloitte. They are the authors of the forthcoming MIT Press book The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation (April 2019), from which this article is adapted.


1. G. Santayana, The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, Vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 284.

2. J. Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, sec. 1, The Price of the Ticket (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985).

3. G.C. Kane, Is the Right Group Leading Your Digital Initiatives? MIT Sloan Management Review, Aug. 3, 2018.


The authors would like to thank Stacey Philpot of Deloitte Consulting LLP for her contributions to this article.