Despite the prevalence of digital tools at our workplaces, effective leadership still relies on analog skills. In fact, argues Sydney Finkelstein, the old-school ability to motivate and inspire others is more important than it has ever been. Finkelstein, the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, has spent more than a decade studying how great bosses lead.
Adaptability, unconventional thinking, and outstanding mentorship are traits that he says propel individuals into powerful positions of leadership — and help to keep them there. In his book Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (Portfolio, 2016), Finkelstein suggests that while technological change may eliminate the need for some forms of management, the interpersonal skills that make great leaders are rarer and more highly prized than ever.
MIT Sloan Management Review spoke with Finkelstein about the evolving nature of leadership in a digital age. Freelance journalist Frieda Klotz conducted the interview, and what follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
MIT Sloan Management Review: How is technology changing the way the best leaders operate?
Finkelstein: Every company is a tech company now, whether they’re developing the technology in Silicon Valley or simply using it. The workforce that’s coming in today has technological capabilities that are unmatched in any cohort entering the workforce before it. People can work anywhere now and are usually no longer in the same office at the same time.
So outstanding leaders — those who bring out the most in other people, create opportunities for the employees they manage, and unleash their creativity — will enable flexible work practices to attract new talent. They’re going to strengthen their teams using a range of technologies. There are many different communication tools that connect employees across organizations, such as Slack and Facebook’s Workplace, and those who manage teams need to know what the best ones are and how to harness their capabilities. “Superbosses,” many of whom already come from Silicon Valley, will have to embrace technology and use it effectively in everything they do.
But the other and more counterintuitive thing is that the more important technology is, the more it becomes an equalizer. More value will accrue to leaders who have complementary skills.