Leadership and cooperation in the digital age

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4 minutes


Prof. Dr. Daniel Schallmo

Can you imagine working from a sailboat and leading your team remotely? Maren Wagener founded the IT company Vast Forward in Hamburg in 2008, which she now manages with her husband from a sailboat. The company offers project management and programming services for agencies and has seven project leaders working in different locations. Communication is mainly done via e-mail, Skype and telephone.

Turbulent times

About 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus formulated a daring thesis: “The only constant in the universe is changing.” This statement is as true now as it was then.

When the USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, US Army War College experts talked about the VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

The VUCA world plays a major role today especially in the context of digitization. The relevant trends here include increasing digitization of different areas, changing customer demands, new and individualized services, increasing globalization, new working environments, and demographic change; these trends are being investigated by researchers at the Zukunftsinstitut or Trendone, for example.

Success factors and tasks

Based on these trends, the following success factors can be derived for companies:

  • Transformation of the corporate culture to enable digital transformation
  • Targeted use of technologies for process optimization
  • Customer-centered work and development of new solutions
  • Networking on a technological and personal level
  • Agility and speed in all areas, and
  • Empowerment of employees

These success factors can basically be classified into two dimensions based on a model by Dave Ulrich and Kim Cameron et al.

The first dimension is the operational-strategic dimension. What is crucial here is whether the tasks are operational-short-term or strategic-long-term.

The second dimension is the human-technology dimension. What is crucial here is whether the tasks are based more on people or on technologies.

The role of management

There are four areas that contain tasks and roles for management in the digital age; this is illustrated in the following figure.

Leadership digital age blog matrix

The four roles of management in the digital age are briefly explained below:

The innovator is concerned with the long term and is focused on the employees. This person actively shapes the digital transformation and renewal of the company and works to transform the corporate culture. They are open and and actively encourage novelty. They support employees and their willingness to shape the digital transformation. The main job of the innovator is to focus on information, awareness and qualification of employees.

The doer is also oriented to the long term; but they focus on the technologies and corporate strategy that serve the digital transformation. They take into account new technologies and include a clear approach on how to change from a technological point of view. The main focus of the doer is anticipation of (technological) trends, seizing opportunities early and using them over the long term.

The coordinator, like the doer, is focused on technologies, which are to be used in operational activities. This includes tools that support collaboration. Such tools include, for example, Wunderlist, Trello, etc. Through the use of existing technologies and the use of digital potentials, the performance, and in particular the processes, within the company can be improved.

The mentor is focused on the short term and on the employees. They create a commitment to digital topics among employees by designing their daily work accordingly and promoting their individual performance.

As with many role models for employees and leaders, a person does not occupy their role exclusively but occupies it together with others with a common focus on main issues. It is also necessary from the point of view of management to occupy different roles, depending on the task, objective, situation and staff. We are talking about being a hybrid leader.

Leadership digital age blog collegues

Ten success factors for leadership in the digital age

A meta-study by the Institute for Leadership Culture in the Digital Age collected several success factors that are important for leadership in the digital age:

  • Communication skills: giving feedback, listening, analogue before digital
  • Orientation toward people: esteem, respect, rich relationships
  • Trust: trusting leadership
  • Decision-making power: purposeful action, fast decision-making processes, flexible working hours
  • Teamwork: teamplayer in networked teams
  • Creativity and innovation: “outside the box” thinking, questioning existing structures
  • Networking: networking yourself and others
  • Transparency: transparent employee management, free access to internal information
  • No hierarchical thinking: clearly defined goals instead of authority
  • Media literacy: mastery of technical communication media, in-depth knowledge of digital technologies

Combined with the different roles, these success factors provide a solid foundation for leadership in the digital age. Who knows if in the future we will all be working from the location we want, for example a sailing boat, while leading our teams successfully in the digital age?

The well-known quote from the German poet Goethe applies here: “It's not enough to know, you have to apply it; it's not enough to want, you have to do it.”


  • Bundesverband Deutscher Unternehmensberater (n. J.), Leadership in times of digitization, Bonn
  • Cameron, K. et al. (2014): Competing Values Leadership, Northampton, USA
  • Institute for Leadership Culture in the Digital Age (2016), Meta-study: Leading in the digital age, Frankfurt
  • Töpper, V. (2017), Working from the sailboat: “The first thing we do in the morning is jump into the water”, Hamburg
  • Trendone (2018), Megatrends, Hamburg
  • Ulrich, D. (1997): Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results, Brighton, USA

Prof. Dr. Daniel Schallmo

Hochschule Ulm