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How Do You Lead in a Virtual World?

How do you lead in a virtual world? This is probably a question that gets asked a lot lately given the immense changes taking place within businesses right now, and such an intense focus on operating within a digital environment. One of these changes is the massive shift in how leadership is defined and what it actually means. We are moving away from the more traditional forms of leadership into unchartered and very exciting territory. A landscape where finally we can all be co-leaders no matter what level we are at, and begin creating amazing things that would otherwise not be possible.

Before we dive into where leadership is going and what works within virtual businesses, let’s look at where it has been.

What Leadership Used To Look Like

The general belief around leadership used to be that it took place at the top rungs of an organization. It required you to have a certain title and position in the higher echelons of the company, and with this title came greater decision making responsibility and accountability. Communication in this role tended to move from the top down, and initiated after decisions were made.

Some leaders also earned their title in an “achievement” environment. As Sabah Alam Hydari has pointed out in her article on teams (Countering Otherness: Fostering Integration Within Teams), this was an environment “in which they were encouraged to compete, strive, and attain goals: grades, plum jobs, promotions, and so forth. In such an environment, and as a generalization, they may have spent less time learning about or developing themselves and their self-awareness than they have spent pursuing achievement goals.” This puts the realm of leadership very much in the external environment, however it has been shown that including elements of the internal environment such as self-awareness and development are key to attaining those external goals. In my opinion, when looking back, it feels like the gap between the definitions of management and leadership was small, and that leadership was really more of a title than an actual way of being.

This leadership mode was prevalent for decades. That is not to say there weren’t other styles out there, but this seemed to be the most common one. Not particularly surprising as it was simply following how businesses were structured, they were built on hierarchies of management. These types of business structures made it very difficult for any “higher forms” of leadership to grow and thrive. Internal dynamics were shaped by the framework and container they found themselves in. At this time, management was “where it was at.”

The Shift

One of my all time favourite quotes is from Heraclitus: “The only constant in life is change.” If we can be assured of one thing, it is that things never remain the same. And so it was within the business world. New types of business models started forming and with them new internal dynamics. Slowly but surely we began to see organizational hierarchies become flatter, communication began to flow from the bottom upwards, and cross-functional teams emerged.

The “rules” had changed. The layers of management that one needed to wade through to get to the top before reaching the famed titles and sought after leadership positions all of a sudden disappeared.

At this point the definition of leadership was turned upside-down, inside-out and shot off to the moon and back. What did leadership actually mean? What did it look like now? Who could become a leader? These were important questions because leadership was needed now more than ever. This previous, more authoritative style of leadership no longer worked in these new business models. Why? Because businesses were now being built on a new foundation: collaboration.

Leadership in the Virtual World

One of the biggest changes we have seen take place is the move towards digital. This method of working is completely different from the ones we are used to. In a virtual business your co-workers can be located anywhere in the world across 4 different time zones, and your longest commute is probably from your bedroom to the kitchen table. While this probably sounds incredibly exciting to many of you (the commute alone would have most people doing cartwheels), there are in fact even more exciting traits of virtual businesses and teams that have helped create the most exciting leadership style yet. It is leadership based on co-elevation and collaboration.

Co-elevation as a leadership style is a concept that has been brought forward by Keith Ferrazzi. Keith has been a driving force behind this new style of leadership, and the impact it has created has been 100-fold. However, for now we will summarize it with his own definition of leadership:

“Leadership is the humble facilitation of extraordinary people, creating an ecosystem that gets extraordinary results.”

This style of leadership is not about one person at the helm with the rest following. This is about the entire team playing a part as a leader, leadership is shared by everyone. This is exactly what is needed within virtual businesses and teams.

Virtual businesses models function best when they are built with a flatter structure and revolve around team units. Why? Because in the virtual world it is next to impossible to be constantly managing someone and checking on them regularly. Trying to work like this ends up being exhausting and wastes a lot of time. Virtual work is highly autonomous by nature. When building a virtual team you want those roles to be filled with people who are able to self manage, are constant learners, have a passion for what they do and come to the table with bright ideas, drive and possible solutions. Every single person on the team is considered a leader. The accountability, decision making authority and problem solving that used to be relegated to “upper management” is instead disseminated among your teams. Leadership belongs to everyone, everyone can learn from each other, everyone is responsible for helping to “elevate” each other into the best version of themselves, and egos should be checked at the door.

Going back to our original question, how do you lead in a virtual world? Through co-elevation and collaboration. I believe the bigger question, however, is this: are you ready to shift into this new world of leadership? Are you ready to be the leader that these teams need in order to shine as brightly as they possibly can and help your business not only grow but make an impact like it never has before? Are you ready to let go of old ideas and beliefs around business and leadership, unlearn, and open up to a completely new perspective and way of doing things? This, to me, is the real question that makes all the difference.

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