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Becca
Cooper
Becca.Cooper@cognitomedia.com

Great leadership requires muscle memory—sometimes you’re flexing the muscle of influence, sometimes you’re flexing the muscle of authority. Depending on the type of leader you are, how you train or exercise those muscles impacts how you’re able to grow and maintain leadership strength.

But digital transformation in business means those leadership muscles have evolved. Digital disruption has introduced variables that didn’t previously exist in business—and good leaders need to adapt and flex new muscles very quickly, while still maintaining their essential leadership skills, in order to succeed. 

Let’s talk about those changing muscles. The muscle of influence is the softer side of the equation. It’s your gut instinct, the human side of what’s needed, and your active leadership to know when and how to make it happen. It’s the interpersonal skills, the educating and coaching that businesses require from their leaders in order to thrive. 

On the other side of the equation is the muscle of authority. It’s the instructional side of leadership, learning from what works and what doesn’t and instructing people in the path forward. For decades, that muscle of authority was what you needed to be successful—and years of experience would typically dictate the depth of knowledge you had to steer your company forward.

But now, in the digital world, businesses have access to huge amounts of data that can help leaders train and strengthen their authority muscle. Leaders have to learn how to process and leverage their data, quickly, in order to make intelligent business decisions. It can no longer be just about experience; data has to be the authority leading the way forward.

Likewise, the muscle of influence has evolved through digital, as well. Before, leaders relied on their gut instincts, and created corporate culture. Now we have extremely transparent, agile workforces, and greater connectivity at our fingertips, allowing leaders to build and shape their influence in a new way. These might ultimately still be the ‘softer’ skills, but digital transformation has given leadership the tools (and the access) to grow them thoughtfully. 

“People are rarely motivated by fiat, when the boss says, ‘just do it,’” says Stephanie Miller, Head of Global Digital Marketing at AlixPartners. “People are motivated when encouraged to engage directly with new technologies and come up with their own great ideas for applying that tech to the business. The job of the leader is to set the compass and guide new ideas toward business objectives. Particularly in digital marketing, the journey is unpredictable, wild and sometimes amazing, but the destination should be clear.”

Today’s leaders are actually ahead of the curve on the digital “authority” front and lacking on the influencer front. In PwC’s 21st CEO Study, “The talent challenge: Rebalancing skills for the digital age,” 91 percent of CEOs said they need to strengthen their soft skills to sit alongside digital skills, whereas only 23 percent of CEOs are extremely concerned about the digital skills of their leadership team

Learning and adapting to the digital environment has happened fast, we just have to be careful we don’t lose the other side of the equation.

Today’s leaders know that without authority you have no accountability. But without influence, you can’t create change or rally the troops to build a truly digital culture. It’s the human side of business coupled with the power of data, and both are critically important in today’s digital leaders. Keep both muscles strong and know when to fit or flex.

Becca Cooper and Dominic Leung work Cognito's New York office