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Digital leadership

Creating Leaders for Industry 4.0

We sit down with some of Australia most influential innovators to find out what makes a good leader


Technology has changed the workplace forever. In the digital economy, speed matters more than ever before.  According to Deloitte's 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, leaders need to think, act and react differently to guide businesses in the digital age.  And yet, only 5 per cent of organisations feel confident they have strong leadership in place.  

We sat down with some of Australia's most influential innovators, who have worked with and coached CEOs of some of Australia's most iconic companies, including Envato, Australia Post, ANZ and Etsy, to ask them what makes a good leader.


Helen Souness, CEO RMIT Online 

I think it is a human characteristic to want to make a difference in the world and to have an impulse to create.  To be really satisfied in our work, I think we all need to see how our work makes a difference, and ideally allows us agency to create novel ideas or approaches.  That is why I think purpose, as well as a degree of agency and autonomy are such key ingredients in motivating a team and helping them do their best work.  In a rapidly evolving world, it is also impossible to be across all the technological and competitor innovation happening around you, so you need everyone in your team to have an eye to the environment and respond quickly to change.  For all these reasons, old fashioned styles of leadership like ‘command and control’ were perhaps never appropriate, but certainly don’t work in contemporary work environments.  They neither give your team enough agency to fully engage all their talents in their work, nor do they get the best business outcome as you can not always see what is needed nearly as well as your team who work closest to the customer. 

I think great cultures are built with great people, who feel empowered but also supported, to do purposeful work.  It is a hard thing to build and an easy thing to break. With just a few bad leaders or, for example, aggressive behaviours allowed to persist, a great culture can be damaged rapidly.  Culture was fundamental to the success of the multiple best employers I have worked in, O2 UK, SEEK, Envato and Etsy, and it is fundamental to our success so far at RMIT Online in moving quickly and innovating for lifelong learners.  I could never have had all the product or partnership ideas we have delivered to market in our first two years, and we would never have succeeded without our empowered teams knowing they held the decision rights to move fast and do whatever it took to deliver for our students and community.  

Being a Manager is a position you are appointed to, being a Leader is something you earn.  You can lose that right if you breach trust with our team, at any point.  The responsibility of leading and serving my team is something I take very seriously, and I am very excited to be sharing some thoughts around leadership in the course, in the hope of helping other leaders on their journey. 


Gary O’Brien, Thoughtworks 

The digital era has changed the game for everyone.  The explosion of tech has caused a mass change to the way we function as a society, and the way companies operate.  There is a lot more ambiguity in decision making, and yet, we also know we need to make a lot more decision, more often.  This surge in emerging technologies has also created a challenge for leaders from a strategic sense, with an expectation they will know which technologies we need to use and when, and an increasingly blurred line between tech and business.  Perhaps most significantly, there’s also been a change to the customer.  The customer has always been king, but in the digital age, there’s a heightened expectation from them that they can access you and your service or product at any time, in real time.  There is now an assumption from customers that their experience should be consistent across all channels.   

So how do business leaders evolve to keep pace with the changed workplace?  Leaders can no longer be the oracle of all knowledge, because they they will hold everything up. The pace is simply too fast.  Leaders in the digital age need to teach people to solve problems independently. As a leader, you can’t have all the answers, so it becomes really important you can hand back problems unsolved.  It is no longer a top down ‘command and control’ environment. It’s a collaborative workplace. 

For teams an individuals to feel empowered to initiate change, I always recommend: 

  • Own the vision 

  • Build communities (create the movement) 

  • Deal with Ambiguity 

  • Listen, Stewar, Mentor 

  • Focus on the growth and well being of others 

  • Be outcome focused 

  • Nudge teams to avoid functional thinking 


Rebecca Houghton, Bold HR 

It’s no secret that leadership has become more challenging. Aaron Dignan frames the new demands only too well – 

“We need to go faster. Be more innovative. Make better decisions. Waste less time. Break down silos. Work horizontally. Simplify our structure. Focus on the customer. Increase information flow. Scale without losing what makes us great. Change our business model. Attract different talent. Retain the great talent we have.” 

Phew.  Leadership has suddenly changed – but why has it changed? 

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”  Charles Schwef, World Economic forum Chairman 

As a former HR executive with Australia Post, I’ve got five years head start on most leaders in Australia when it comes to leading large teams and designing significant talent programs in an era of significant disruption and I’ve been looking closely at what it means to make the shift to ‘Leader 4.0’.  

Because this isn’t a phase of change.  It isn’t the kind of change that is going to slow down or stop.  I hear leaders all around the world using language like ‘when this is over’, or ‘when we get through this’ and the truth is that on the other side of that imaginary finish line – is more change.  There is no finish line.  

If change is the new normal – then we have to focus on a change how we lead, not how we lead change. So if you are a new leader, the traditional leadership teachings may be out of date.  And if you’re an experienced leader, you’re seeing your old toolkit missing the mark.  Industry 4.0 requires something different from us as leaders – the right mindset and toolkit so we can confidently cut through the chaos. 


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This article was originally published on 25 September 2019