Traits for Future Digital Leaders

What five traits do you imagine digital leaders will need in five years’ time?  That’s the question we asked digital leaders to consider at Digifest 24 as part of the community hub.

There was a wide range across the 111 words that people put forward. Perhaps inevitably, it didn’t neatly produce a top five but with a little bit of editing the overlaps produced a pretty clear top ten.

A word cloud in the shape of an arrow with open, adaptable, empathy, and curiosity as the largest words.


The most common trait that our leaders identified was openness.  It’s not surprising that openness should be so important for digital leaders.  The digital world moves at pace and there are many changes to consider.  Without openness its difficult for digital leaders to make the most of these developments.

A group openly welcoming each other
Photo by Kampus Production

Digital leaders also need to be open to the different perspectives that people inevitably have to the digital world.  One of my most confident predictions for the future is that technology will only advance to the extent people find it worthwhile.  That gives people much greater agency than they usually feel in the development of technology, but it is an interdependent rather than independent agency.  Digital leaders need to be open to the resistance some people will show and the reasons behind it to lead people effectively.

Effective digital leaders are open to both aspects, understanding how the developing digital world might benefit their organisation and open to the range of perspectives people in the organisation might feel about those developments.

Helpful questions to reflect on your openness with could be:

  • When did you last change your mind in response to something someone else said?
  • How often do you engage with opinions you don’t agree with?

Adaptability and Flexibility

The next most popular trait was adaptability with a related trait of flexibility close behind.  This makes sense as adaptability and flexibility are the action-oriented responses to openness.

A dancer stretches their leg high.
Photo by Marta Wave

Digital leaders recognise that the pace of change means that their practice and plans will regularly need to change in response to what they are learning about the changing world and the responses and reactions of the people they lead.

An image I find helpful with this in mind is to think of non-digital leadership as taking place on firm ground compared to digital leadership that takes place at sea.  Much like the sea the digital world is constantly moving beneath our feet and that requires a different stance that is more responsive to maintain balance.

Adaptability also means that leaders recognise their own need to change whether that is developing new skills, increasing their knowledge, or instilling new behaviours.

Helpful questions to reflect on with adaptability include:

  • When did you last change your plans in relation to new information that you’d received?
  • How often do you change your plans to respond to new evidence before circumstances force you?


An encouraging surprise in the list was curiosity.  In many ways its closely related to openness but it feels like a more intense and proactive form.  Curious leaders are actively looking for new perspectives to explore rather than merely being open to them as and when they receive them.

A magnifying glass focusing on the word "new".
Photo by Ivan Babydov

Curiosity is an attitude that is keen to learn both “what does this button do” as new updates are released for software and as they encounter new equipment.  It’s also an attitude that seeks to know more when it encounters something new.  It particularly reminds me of Stephen Covey’s habit “Seek first to understand”.  A risk for leaders is to assume they understand what a member of their team means without further exploring it, but appropriate curiosity often opens up new perspectives.

Helpful questions to increase your curiosity might be:

  • When did you last try something new?
  • How often do you opt in to new features in technology?

Empathy and Compassion

A man being shown compassion.
Photo by Alex Green

Next was empathy closely followed by compassion.  It strikes me that this is a critical trait for digital leaders and for better or worse not one that is stereotypically associated with technology and the digital world.

People tend to fear that technology will make the world less human rather than more compassionate.  However, digital transformation is often hard work that requires significant change from people and often in a context where many people already feel overwhelmed.

Effective digital leaders are empathetic and compassionate so that they understand how people are feeling about the changes being asked to make and proactively seek to provide them with appropriate support to make the necessary changes.

Helpful questions to increase your empathy and compassion are:

  • How does this person feel about what I’m asking them to do?
  • How can I improve how they feel about a change they need to make?
  • What support can I provide to make things better?

Communication, Imagination, Risk-Taking and Thinking

Honourable mentions also go to communication, imagination, risk-taking and the simple act of thinking which all placed equally highly in peoples’ responses.

Helpful reflective questions to consider might include:

  • How often do I have to re-explain what I’ve already communicated?
  • How would I approach this situation if money and time weren’t things to worry about?
  • How are my fears about what might go wrong holding us back?
  • How many of the reflective questions have you considered so far? Which is the most important to spend more time with?

What do you think of these traits and how would your work be different if you possessed all of them?

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