digital leadership

Digital leadership is the strategic use of a company's digital assets to achieve business goals. Digital leadership can be addressed at both organizational and individual levels.

At the individual level, digital leadership may be carried out by the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or other individuals who are responsible for overseeing digital assets, including email and electronic documents. No matter what the individual's job title is, an effective digital leader is always aware of corporate goals and knows how his or her own job responsibilities support them.


On an organizational level within a specific marketplace, the digital leader may be a company that successfuly takes advantage of its own digital assets to gain and maintain a competitive advantage. Digital leaders are willing to explore how information technology (IT) can be used to help an organization become more responsive to customer needs and changing business requirements. Successful digital leaders understand the importance, and take responsibility for, inbound data and the processes within the company that support it, as well as the outbound digital information that the company generates across the various ecosystems in which it participates.


Organizations that value digital leadership, often place value on communication, creativity and a willingness to explore new ways that technology and digital information can be used to successfully address outward-facing business projects, internal projects, projects that affect operations and unplanned work. With effective digital leadership, an organization is able to create workflow and business processes that allow new applications, products and services to be rolled out quickly, while also ensuring that legacy applications and IT operations are being maintained at optimal levels.

A digital leader must also focuse on the quality and functional value of a company's digital assets.As individuals, digital leaders work in much the same way as a chief financial officer (CFO), a director of human resources or a chief operations officer (COO) works; they need to assure all interested parties that the assets for which they are responsible maintain maximum value. The executive who is exercising digital leadership is doing something that every other person in the C-suite is dependent upon. CFOs cannot do their jobs well if they do not have reliable digital information. Directors of human resources cannot make good hiring decisions if their systems allow false applications for jobs to be submitted without verification of credentials and capabilities. COOs can't run the plant well if they're not getting reliable input on the raw materials being delivered. If the information can be trusted, if it is reliable and if it is authentic, business decisions are made faster and are more likely to be trusted because of the quality of the information upon which decisions were based.

Digital leadership and impact on CIOs

To understand digital leadership, roll back the clock to imagine the first conversation between a CEO and his executive team as to what they were going to do with these newfangled things called computers. In many respects the term chief information officer (CIO) is exactly the right title for an executive who is exercising digital leadership. But over the last 35 to 40 years, the term CIO has been transformed into the equivalent of "a box and wire jockey" -- someone who simply acquires boxes and wires and replaces desktops and handles servers.

In today's information technology (IT) organizations, new roles are emerging to deal with digital business, including the chief data officer (CDO), the chief trust officer, the data management executive and the information governance lead. All of these titles are jockeying to fill a current void in corporate leadership to assure the quality and the functional value of information.

Examples of digital leaders

Digital leadership is not particular to a specific industry but exists across economies in different regions of the world.

One example dates back over 20 years to the South Asian shipping industry. At the time, the use of computers to generate electronic purchase orders was in its infancy. Countries like Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore were competing fiercely to be ports of origins for the shipment of goods and merchandise in international trade.

Over time, the countries realized that if they could not come together and build digital leadership, they would be left behind by Europe and American interests. In 1994, South Korea drafted the first national legislation on electronic commerce (e-commerce) nearly seven years before the United States put in place a national legal framework for online purchasing.

The business perspective

In an interview with LinkedIn Executive Editor Daniel Roth, Jack Welch, former CEO at GE, said, "When they trust you, you'll get truth. And if you get truth, you get speed. If you get speed, you're going to act."

To exercise digital leadership for the quality and functional value of a company's information, the business needs to trust the people in charge of digital assets and the information they provide. When a business needs to spend time validating sources and vetting the digital information provided by the CIO or other self-appointed digital leader, it consumes time. When digital leadership is being exercised appropriately, organizations can move faster and create competitive advantage.

The future of digital leadership

There is an enormous opportunity for CIOs to redefine their roles in business and step forward rather than backward in assuming the responsibilities of digital leadership. CIOs have access to the technology and the data needed to assume accountability and deliver digital value across the company.

This was last updated in July 2015

Continue Reading About digital leadership

Dig Deeper on CIO strategy

Cloud Computing
Mobile Computing
Data Center
Sustainability and ESG