The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age

Reimagining What It Takes to Lead

by: Douglas A. Ready, Carol Cohen, David Kiron, and Benjamin Pring

Executives around the world are out of touch with what it will take to win, and to lead, in the digital economy. Digitalization, upstart competitors, the need for breakneck speed and agility, and an increasingly diverse and demanding workforce require more from leaders than what most can offer.

Although a significant segment of the current generation of leaders might be out of touch, they still have control — over strategic decisions, who gets hired and promoted, and the culture of their organizations — but not for long. The need for change is urgent, and time is running out for leaders who are holding on to old ways of working and leading.

Evidence of this growing mismatch between how many organizations are currently led and how they should be led comes through loud and clear in this new, exciting report, “The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age: Reimagining What It Takes to Lead.” This global executive study and research report’s objective is straightforward: to explore how the changing nature of competition, work, and society is influencing the future of leadership. We surveyed 4,394 global leaders from more than 120 countries, conducted 27 executive interviews, and facilitated focus-group exchanges with next-gen emerging leaders worldwide. The findings are as sobering as they are inspiring. They serve as a warning for today’s leaders — as well as an invitation to reimagine leadership for the new economy. Today’s trailblazing leaders increasingly recognize that in order to credibly transform their organizations, they must credibly transform themselves and their teams.

Some brief highlights of this evidence that concerned us include the following:

  • Just 12% of respondents strongly agree that their leaders have the right mindsets to lead them forward.
  • Only 40% agree that their companies are building robust leadership pipelines to tackle the demands of the digital economy.
  • Only 48% agree that their organizations are prepared to compete in digitally driven markets and economies.
  • While 82% believe that leaders in the new economy will need to be digitally savvy, less than 10% of respondents strongly agree that their organizations have leaders with the right skills to thrive in the digital economy.


1. “A Page From the New Leadership Playbook,” a resource available from MIT Sloan Management Review, is available at

2. Top executives increasingly recognize the importance of this mindset. For example, in August 2019, the Business Roundtable, a group composed of CEOs of leading U.S. companies, issued a statement acknowledging that increasing shareholder value is not the sole purpose of a corporation.

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Comments (3)
Jeff Shuman
Interesting observations about what the authors call the "Connector Mindset". We just posted a blog that looks  at both collaborative leadership and the leadership system required to support and implement the capability as the antidote to the people and organizational challenges of achieving success in cross-boundary collaborations.
L Biasatti
This is a great article based on good research. The problem is these same things were being said in the 90s. Maybe without as much tech focus, but still the same leadership issues and similar suggestions. You talk about "trailblazing leadership." Michael Vance used the same words in the 80s. "Obsessed with customer" and "pursuing a higher purpose" are perspectives that have been around for a long time. Your four recommendations are awesome, but they aren't new. I have pushing "powerful leadership narrative" and "alignment" for years. The real issue is why are so many leaders not able to do these things. Partly because, to use an old Who song lyric"here comes the new boss, same as the old boss." Boards have to really start holding people accountable, not just for short term profits, but long term sustainability. Rewards have to go to those who demonstrate the leadership you are describing.   So, great piece of research and great communication piece. Now, how many board members and CEOs from long term companies will read it, and as you state, not just talk about it, but take action and live it.
Janice Dru
Great article! Building a community of emerging and enduring leaders, as well as creating spaces to bring together producers, investors, connectors, and explorers, will lead to greater innovation and high-impact entrepreneurship.