Defining digital leadership: a debate

I am currently participating in a debate at Digifest 2018 in Birmingham. This post is details my thoughts on what makes a good digital leader. I don’t know what questions we are going to be asked or what conversation will naturally arise from the panel, so these are my initial thoughts. These are the traits of the best digital leaders I know.

The blurb for the debate is as follows:

The Jisc digital leadership programme helps delegates to look closely at their own practices. This will be a debate around what makes a good “digital” leader, discussing some of those practices. It will draw on the content of the Jisc digital leaders programme and the panel speakers will be alumni from the course.

I’m not sure what the ‘digital’ bit means.

I really don’t. I can’t work out if it’s a buzzword thing or if there is a genuine difference between a leader of any other kind and a digital leader. So I’ll do my best to talk about ‘digital’ leadership but to some extent, I’m just talking about leadership in general.

A good digital leader…

…knows that technology is not a solution

Technology solves some problems but not all. A good digital leader knows that there’s more to fixing problems than plugging stuff in.

…seeks understanding

It’s tempting after a long time in this profession to think one knows it all. I certainly don’t and I don’t think HE and technology are things that can ever be fully understood. Good (digital) leaders know that there is always something to learn are not so self-absorbed as to think they have all the answers.

…knows that barriers are often cultural, not technological

Technology is a thing we use to do a thing. The barriers to technology use are actually very easy to break down. Skills can be trained. Processes can be refined. Technologies can be integrated, developed and improved. Culture, however, is not easy to change and, in my experience, is the biggest barrier to the use of technology. Culture being the ideas, attitudes, feelings and behaviours that a group of people might display. Changing something so deeply entrenched as the culture of an institution is a long, hard game.

…is able to play the game

In HE there is always a game to be played to get something done. An angle to pursue, money to be scrounged or getting the people with the right influence on board. A good (leader) knows how to play those games to their and the institution’s advantage. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game’ and all that, but thangz gotz to get done y’all.

…is quick to get to know the right people

Influence, influence and influence. A good leader is able to gain the confidence of those in positions of influence. It’s so important to know who your decision makers are and to get to know them.

…develops credibility

If people think you’re a tool, they’ll treat you like a tool. Credibility is so key when instigating change at an institutional level. If they have no faith in you, how can they have faith in what you’re trying to do? How can they have confidence in you?

…sees where the organisation is, and should, be going

Keeping an eye on the future, as well as the here and now, is a skill. Knowing how to get there is a talent.

…accepts that change doesn’t happen overnight

A good leader is patient. Real change is hard work. It takes time and commitment. The ‘bull in a china shop’ approach does not go down well with your immediate team or the rest of the institution.

…will say they don’t know

It’s hard to trust anyone who acts as though they have all the answers and never asks for help. These people are usually exposed for the charlatans they are. Asking people who know something, or will be affected, by your work is not only polite, it’s sensible. Arrogance does not instil confidence.

…is able to say they’re wrong

Reflecting on your mistakes and where thing’s didn’t go quite as planned should be a must.

…knows that changing everything is not a sign of success

Changing all the technology you don’t like is a cop out mate. It’s not really change, it’s just a change. It’s the lowest common denominator and if it’s your first port of call, then you’re more worried about looking like you’re doing something than actually doing something meaningful. Doing stuff ≠ success.

…puts people first

This should be at the forefront of their mind. They shoul be thinking about everyone in the institution, their team, the students etc. They do what they do for them. They are their champion.

…is realistic

Digital stuff in HE isn’t all VR and raining money. Often, all you can do is make the most of what you have, therein lies true skill.

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