Leadership: Become a Digital-Age Thinker - Tech Learning

Leadership: Become a Digital-Age Thinker

In June 2005, the National Basketball Association (NBA) crowned the San Antonio Spurs “World Champions.” When David Stern, NBA commissioner, presented the team its championship trophy, he proclaimed the Spurs as “truly an international team of stars.” The team’s top three players, Tim
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In June 2005, the National Basketball Association (NBA) crowned the San Antonio Spurs “World Champions.” When David Stern, NBA commissioner, presented the team its championship trophy, he proclaimed the Spurs as “truly an international team of stars.” The team’s top three players, Tim Duncan, Emanuel Ginobili, and Tony Parker were born outside the continental United States. The team of stars consists of players who were born in America, Argentina, France, Republic of Georgia, Russia, Slovenia, and the Virgin Islands. If the Spurs’ players, coaches, and management team symbolize 21 st century globalization, then business and educational organizations need to reevaluate their leadership style to embrace diversity.

Technology is Changing Leadership

Throughout history, societies have chosen people with extraordinary abilities as their leaders. These leaders were able to create change with the technologies they had available, enabling the quality of life we have today. Although many leader heroes have given us models that personify the desirable leadership qualities, the new circumstances of the modern world have reshaped the leadership profile we need today.

A knowledge economy defines the modern world. School leadership, throughout history, has always carved the path that defined the future world. Now, with a knowledge economy, school leaders are challenged to implement changes to a system that once created great organizations because the distribution of knowledge is not endemic to educational leadership. Knowledge is distributed openly and knowledge workers have a clearer understanding of their work than their leaders.

Changes brought about by modern technology have inspired knowledge workers, knowledge management, and the knowledge economy. One of the engines that propels the knowledge world is the Internet. The Internet has cultivated new communities of practice and has redesigned the way we conduct business. But, unlike business- and service-oriented organizations, the public education system has been slow in embracing the digital age opportunities.

The causes of this reluctance are embedded in the beliefs of school leaders, the “this too shall pass” syndrome. Additionally, it is rooted in the habit of repeating an action with the expectation of a different outcome. Although most of the world knows this as a symptom of insanity, in education, it is called the “cyclical or recursive mode of curriculum and instruction.” The saying in education is that if you hang around long enough, the same concepts of teaching and learning keep coming back. Perhaps this is why many school leaders see technology as intrusive. As it has never been a part of the education landscape before it is not recursive – and therefore intrusive.

Technology is viewed mainly as a tool with the potential for some future greatness. To adapt practices to include technology, school district leaders should

  • Follow the lead of businesses to realize more benefits from technology,
  • Allow technology leaders to join the decision-making team,
  • Integrate effective use of technology in all academic disciplines, and
  • Provide on-going staff development on integrating technology in all academic disciplines.

Identifying Leadership Qualities

Leadership is neither an art nor a science but a philosophy. It can be viewed as an attitude, a viewpoint, an idea, a thinking strategy, a way of life, a value system, or a set of beliefs. When leaders walk into a school organization, they bring along their self, or ego, imbued with their ideologies. The leaders normally espouse cultural stances that reveal their beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes by treating one cultural perspective as more valid and appropriate than others.

Leadership in the 21 st century needs digital-age leaders. Digital-age leaders are individuals who are purposefully in tune with the fervor of globalization. The structure of globalization requires strong human relationships, a constant effort to unite people from different regions, countries, or learning styles around topics about which they feel passionate (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Digital-age leaders practice successful leadership strategies. They are not change agents; they are change practitioners.

Digital-age leaders are cognizant of the works of great 20 th-century leadership prophets as Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader, Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, and Stephen Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership. Digital-age leaders are tailoring strategies to reshape the standards of leadership qualities. Digital-age leaders continue to pose questions that often rebuff traditional perceptions of organizational management and shift away from inherent bias toward control and conformity to avoid sameness. However, digital-age leaders must bring the past and the future into alignment.

Successful digital-age leaders are

  • Knowledgeable and literate in their field;
  • Systemic and strategic thinkers;
  • Successful at implementing major projects or programs;
  • Able to communicate, motivate, and cultivate;
  • Confident in making important decisions with limited data;
  • Self-assured;
  • Attuned to the values and benefits of globalization; and
  • Infused with technological savvy

Analog-Age Thinking

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911) shaped modern thinking about leadership in his masterpiece on management, The Principles of Scientific Management. The theory of scientific management was a call to American society to entertain conversations on increasing our national efficiency in harvesting the nation’s resources. Effective management, however, required visionary leadership.

Visionary leaders during the last century have built an economic and educational infrastructure and exported the model worldwide. Business organizations were able to embrace the differences in language and culture to boost their economic success. Education, on the other hand, failed to embrace the uniqueness of other culture’s language, cultural traditions, traditional beliefs, and local values. American culture continues to support sameness and stifle the influence of cultural differences because “we” reigned supreme.

There is a need for a new model of leadership that incorporates the nuances of the 21 st century. The conversation regarding reforming the American education system can generate passionate and hostile revolt among good people with good intentions. However, the system cannot continue to fulfill the commitment to quality education unless changes reflect the times. The adage “if it is not broke, you don’t fix it” is a sedimentary thought of analog-age thinking.

Analog-age thinking rejects the value of differences. Diversity is rhetorical. Not only have we seen the behavior in practice as it relates to race, ethnicity, gender, and a person’s ability, but we continue to condone practice of difference in the education process.

Analog-age thinkers have embellished themselves as all knowing. Every generation of leadership has had a vision of the future—a picture in their mind of an ideal world and a plan to coalesce their followers to make their ideas flourish. Analog-age thinkers were change agents who manipulated people and resources, guarded ideas, and opposed dissenters. Analog-age thinkers tended to treat people like mushrooms. Mushroom management is the philosophy that it is best to keep people in the dark, cover them with manure, and when they ripen, can them (Kanter, 2001).

Digital-age Thinking

Once again, Americans are called upon to cohere and unify our efficiencies. The biggest waste that confronts 21 st-century citizens is the squandering of human capital. The number one priority confronting education is garnering the efficiencies of the nation’s youth. The challenge for the education community is to harness the intellectual capacity and to fortify the national resources to guarantee maximum human efficiencies.

Educational leadership recognizes the importance of globalization, fostering the homogenization of educational values, programs, and practices around the world. The task for educators is to find a common ground on which they can accept that monoculturalism is no substitute for multiculturalism. The task is to educate all students to be inclusive in the flat world to foster uniformity.

The Flat World.
In his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman (2005) warned American society that if it fails to adapt a new vision, it will lose its stake in the success of globalization. Friedman stated:

If I am right about the flattening of the world, it will be remembered as one of those fundamental changes—like the rise of the nation-state or the Industrial Revolution—each of which … produced changes in the role of individuals, the role and form of governments … (p. 45).

The explosive growth of technology throughout the world has eclipsed countries’ borders and nations’ languages as a determining factor in communication. Technology has provided a universal tongue by which every citizen communicates. We have moved away from home sourcing to out outsourcing. How soon before parents send their child to school in Europe, virtually? There are no clocks to measure time; communication is continuous 24/7/365 and there is an international common language called English.

The Net Generation.
The N-Geners have created their own universal code of communication that they have launched over the Internet. They can tour anywhere in the world and gather information in seconds without leaving their rooms. N-Geners can read, write, compute, and communicate with each other anytime and anywhere. They are living in a virtual world community, which is real time. Wenger et al (2002) wrote, “True globalization requires community” (p. 135). Communities are not restricted by geography; cultures are not bound by history. In his book Growing up digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, Don Tapscott (1998) provided educators with the awareness of the thinking of the net generation. Tapscott questioned

As the N-Gen comes of age, what kind of world they will create? They are the best-informed and most active generation ever. These young people will dominate most of the twenty-first century. As they take, transform, or smash the reins of power, culture, and social development, what can we expect? What values will they hold? How will they shape the world? (p. 281)

The Learning Community. Digital-age thinking is in vogue with communities of practice, and “communities of practice create a point of stability in a world of temporary, distant relationships” (Wenger et al., 2002, p.136). Businesses throughout the world are benefiting from the advent of globalization. In the education environment, digital-age thinking requires leaders with the ability to

  • Practice knowledge-management principles
  • Support tacit knowledge
  • Cultivate intellectual capital
  • Work with talented and self-motivated people
  • Develop communities of practice
  • Encourage critical thinking
  • Use data for decision making
  • Embrace diversity

Digital-Age Leadership

Digital-age leadership is a solution available to educators to stay current with the speed of change. First, digital-age leaders acquire tolerance for different leadership styles. Second, they have an introspective view of themselves. Third, a digital-age leader is able to align traditional educational leadership principles so that they are not just routine educational administrative functions but tools to inspire others to contribute to the organization.

If educators wish to have any hope of staying abreast with the speed of change, there are four ideas that they should embrace.

  • The computer as a medium: When an educator thinks of the computer as a tool for learning, it serves only the function as defined. Change the paradigm and the computer will evolve into a medium that can be integrated into the curriculum to improve student learning.
  • The leader as a facilitator of knowledge: True school reform should focus on retooling teacher education. The world community has become closer, sharing knowledge and information through the concept of facilitating teaching and learning via technology at school, home, and the workplace.
  • The leader as a practitioner of global culture: The global culture extols the virtues of diversity and difference in many forms and successful leaders are practitioners of globalization. Culture provides a foundation for changes, an avenue for alignment, a medium to infuse values, and an opportunity for individuals to commit to loyalty.
  • The leader adopts a laissez-faire style: Successful leaders are versed in the traditional leadership principles, and they are able to stand on the shoulders of giants to get a clear view of the future. Successful leaders have confidence in themselves, are not afraid to make mistakes, and are not afraid to seek out people with skills and talents way beyond their own. They must harness the value of tacit knowledge within the organization.

Thinking Globally

Thinking globally challenges leaders in education organizations to practice the role of a laissez-faire leadership and let talented people implement the organization’s goals and objectives. A school site principal should not assume the role of an instructional leader. His only responsibility is to serve as a leader of leaders. The task of instructional leader belongs to practitioners. Teachers are knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are not motivated by money—they are motivated by their freedom. In light of this trend, digital-age leaders need to have

  • Agility — the ability to make decisions quickly and decisively,
  • Capacity — the innate ability to thrive on ambiguity,
  • Authenticity — the ability to be consistent and credible,
  • Connectivity — the ability to bridge differences and generate trust,
  • Inimitability — the ability to capitalize on talents and intangible qualities, and
  • Passion — the ability to infuse passion for building teams and great organizations.

There is no question that the speed of change in a global economy requires new thinking methods and leadership strategies. Friedman’s (2005) Rule #4 provides a foretaste of the challenges for businesses as well as educational organizations:

The best companies are the best collaborators. In the flat world, more and more business will be done through collaborations within and between companies, for a very simple reason: the next layers of value creation—whether in technology, marketing, biomedicine, or manufacturing—are becoming so complex that no single firm or department is going to be able to master them alone. (pp. 352-3).

Digital-age leaders were not born to greatness nor has greatness been thrust upon them. Digital-age leaders achieve greatness by adopting modern thinking strategies that embrace cultural differences, a keen sense of knowledge management, great respect for individual talents, collaboration of tacit knowledge, and communities of practice. If the San Antonio Spurs success was an amalgamation of differences or digital-age thinking, they can wear the term World champion with pride.


  • Friedman T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Kanter, R. M. (2001). Evolve! Succeeding in the digital culture of tomorrow. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  • Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Email:Neil Mercurius



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