Three Essential Leadership Traits In The Digital Age

Published in Online Spin, July 6th, 2018

“Leadership” is one of those words like “sustainability.” There are dozens of Ph.D. programs on the topic, thousands of books, a million different interpretations and angles.


Notwithstanding all this content, the scale at which we’re operating means we need to talk about leadership now more than ever. Decisions about things like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, corporate governance and more affect billions of people. And things that are innocuous at a small scale can create huge challenges when scaled up. Marshmallows are delicious; the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is devastating.

So what are the traits needed for today’s leaders? I’d like to call out just three. These are not exclusive nor exhaustive, but they are essential.

The first is that leaders need to be operating from a position of first principles.

Typically, when we’re faced with extreme disruption, our response tends to be, “How can we adapt so we can keep doing what we’re doing?” If we have a large company, how can we keep having a large company? If jobs are going to go away because of automation, how can we create more jobs?

But we need to return to first principles and question the underlying assumptions behind those responses. The most important question is not, “Can we?” but “Should we?”

The second trait is that leaders need to be operating from a position of moral courage. It takes extreme courage to go back to first principles and question those assumptions, because so often the assumptions are so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we forget they aren’t fact or law.

Take the idea that the purpose of the corporation is to return value to shareholders. This idea was put forward by Milton Friedman in a New York Times article in 1970, and has become so embedded in our society that most people think it is the law. But it is not.

In fact, I believe it makes no sense at all to have “social enterprises” over here and “real companies” over here. As an individual, I don’t just have a legal responsibility to society. I also have a moral and civic responsibility. I vote. I show up to school committee meetings. If my elderly neighbor is snowed in, I help shovel her out. Why would we not hold corporations to the same standard of moral and civic responsibility?

But the third trait is perhaps the most important: the belief in agency.

In 2010, Dave Meslin gave a talk at TEDxToronto called “The Antidote to Apathy.” In it, he shares the problem with how we talk about heroes in movies like “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter”: that there’s a chosen one who was selected by a prophecy and they save the world because they were told to.

But true leadership, Meslin says, is a collective effort, not an individual one. It is imperfect, not very glamorous, and doesn’t suddenly start and suddenly end. But most importantly is that it’s voluntary.

“As long as we're teaching our kids that heroism starts when someone scratches a mark on your forehead, or someone tells you you're part of a prophecy, they're missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within. It's about following your own dreams, uninvited, and then working with others to make those dreams come true.”

And so the third most important trait is this: the belief that everyone is a leader. And if you perceive yourself to be a leader, your job is to help others perceive the same about themselves.

We need go back to first principles, with moral courage and an absolute commitment to growing everyone’s leadership capabilities. If we do those things, I’m pretty optimistic about the future we can create.

Kaila Colbin