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.

I am the harbinger of doom

The one thing I hate about my job is disappointing the people I ‘serve’. I guarantee some choice words are said about me. I am often the bad guy, a necessary part of managing a service, but no one likes being the bad guy.

Last week I published a post, or a piece of therapy, about the different pressures and tensions that dictate how I work. A focus being who we should listen to The silent majority vs the deafening minority. Then I read a post from Anne-Marie Scott titled Passivity.

I’ve been reading articles (old and new) and watching videos (old and new) this week which are replaying familiar EdTech tropes and I’m sick of it. Anne-Marie Scott 2017

The tropes she goes on to describe can be paraphrased as the [insert system here] is rubbish, IT departments are evil, vendors/suppliers are evil, no one understands us, we’re being forced, x is a closed system (so evil) and no one does what I want. Her post is mainly in reference to senior people within the education sector. She goes on to describe how we can influence institutional choices and culture.

What does her blog have to do with me? Well, I am part of those tropes.

I am not your enemy

I wrote a blog along these lines some time ago. I am not your enemy was a response to a particularly unpleasant training session my colleague and I attended. People were unhappy at being forced to use something, we weren’t the people forcing them but we were the focus of their irritation. It was a desperate plea for people to think beyond their own perspective.

Rest assured, I am not here to make your life more difficult, despite what you might believe but that doesn’t mean I will roll over and do everything you want. I am not part of some big conspiracy against you. I’m just doing my job the best I can. Same as you.

What do I mean by the harbinger of doom?

I am the person that says “yer that’s great, we would if we could, but…”, “we can’t right now” or “no”.

I don’t understand. I am ignoring you. I am the laggard. I am unimaginative. I am uncreative. I am the dictator. I am the oppressor. I am part of the broken system. I am the bringer of no, nope and Nah. I am the quasher of dreams. I am the destroyer of enthusiasm. I am the omen of the apocalypse. I am Zuul.

Who am I really?

I have good intentions. I’m a realist. I don’t promise more than I can deliver. I don’t take uncalculated risks. I work to make things sustainable. I want to help. I am listening. I understand. I do care.

But I do have to say no.

No is necessary

I can’t say yes to everything. IT’S NOT PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. Read the previous post. Remember, a no usually means there was a yes to something/someone else. Also, sometimes I have to say no to save you from yourselves. Sometimes I have to say no and it’s not even my decision. Sometimes I have to say no because it’s not a sound technical solution.

If you want services and systems that are unsustainable then let me know. I’ll give you yes’s and you can explain why none of it works.

I’m not saying you have to like nos. I’m not saying you have to accept them. I’m just asking you to understand that I have to say no sometimes. Please reciprocate the empathy and respect I have for you.

Haters gonna hate

No matter what I do, I will never win. I have come to accept that. No one contacts people like me to say that everything is going well and I’m doing a good job.

So to the haters, I make this promise.

I will help you despite how you treat me. I will treat you equally. I will be transparent. I will work to get you what you want. I will listen to your feedback and act on it. I will empathise and try to understand you. I will be disappointed in myself every time I say no. I will be your champion.

Of haters, I ask that you understand there’s a lot more to every no than you think. I am not the pantomime villain, I’m the good fairy who can’t always grant your wishes.