Times of rapid change call for a new leadership model.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about how leadership is evolving in a digital world.

For years now, everyone has been talking about VUCA, the U.S. military’s acronym for the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world we live in. However, we now have VUCA on steroids as we try to keep up with the increasing speed of change in a business environment where the amount of data generated doubles every two years, reflecting a 50-fold growth from 2010 to 2020.1

To thrive in this landscape, organizations that have long been siloed and bureaucratic must become nimble and customer-centric, and command-and-control models must give way to distributed leadership.

However, many leaders fear letting go. They don’t want to lose power, which is integral to their identity in an organization. They also worry that chaos will ensue if they loosen the reins. And they tend to shy away from the unfamiliar — they know much more about bureaucracies than about the emerging organizational forms that will take their place.

Such fears often result in inertia. But leaders must evolve quickly or risk extinction.

In a rapidly changing world, people need to know who is leading them — that must be clearly articulated. Those leaders must possess the skills to track an ever-shifting environment and cultivate those skills in others. They need to create flexible teams that collaborate effectively with both internal and external partners. They must inspire their organizations to solve big problems. And they can’t do all this alone — they need to bring in adaptive leaders at all levels, giving them autonomy to innovate but providing guardrails to prevent chaos. In our research at the MIT Leadership Center, my colleagues and I have found that executives and managers who do these five things in particular are best equipped to navigate what lies ahead.

Let’s take a closer look at each new rule in the emerging leadership model.

1. Communicate your leadership signature. When things change, people crave leadership. They seek stability when they fear disorder. They want to feel confident about who is at the helm, steering through treacherous waters. But the romantic notion of the leader who is there to take control isn’t enough to assure them.


1. J. Esteves, “Did You Know? 2019,” Jan. 13, 2019, www.youtube.com; and “The Exponential Growth of Data,” Inside Big Data, Feb. 16, 2017, https://insidebigdata.com.

2. D. Ancona, T.W. Malone, W.J. Orlikowski, et al., “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” Harvard Business Review 12, no. 9 (February 2007).

3. D. Ancona and H. Bresman, “X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate, and Succeed” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2007); and D. Ancona, H. Bresman, and D. Caldwell, “The X-Factor: Six Steps to Leading High-Performing X-Teams,” Organizational Dynamics 38, no. 3 (July-September 2009): 217-224.

4. D.L. Paulhus and K.M. Williams, “The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy,” Journal of Research in Personality 36, no. 6 (December 2002): 556-563.

5. D. Ancona and H. Gregersen, “What Kind of Leadership Works Best at Your Company?” Harvard Business Review, March 19, 2018, https://hbr.org.

6. D. Ancona, E. Backman, and K. Isaacs, “Nimble Leadership,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 4 (July-August 2019): 74-83.

7. Ibid.

3 Comments On: Five Rules for Leading in a Digital World

  • Brian Pelletier | October 29, 2019

    Great column Deborah! Many actionable ideas we can get started with tomorrow (or at least start down the path).
    Two questions – related to “entrepreneurial, enabling, or themselves architecting” – are there people who have all of these leadership abilities? Should they be developed individually in different leaders?
    Thanks for your time and for sharing your expertise.

  • Deborah Ancona | November 4, 2019

    Hi Brian–thanks for the enthusiasm for the work. There are people who do have all of these capabilities. They are the exception not the rule though. These capabilities should be developed one at a time and used before moving on the next set.

    Hope that answers your question. Best, Deborah

  • Jenny Kilgore | December 29, 2019

    I am signed in but cannot get access to the entire article.

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