The International Executive Search Federation’s (IESF) global meeting was held in September 2012 in Milan, Italy. One of the keynote speakers at the meeting was Peter Hägglund, an expert in leadership, governance, and organizational behavior. Peter described the ways in which leadership has taken on a new dimension in the 21st century, explaining that an organization’s teams are just as likely to be on another continent as they are in a cubicle in the same office. The same relationships also apply to their managers. We are connected virtually and updated by social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
According to research Peter’s team has collated, today’s leaders are frustrated at times with the complexities of distance leadership, such as cultural differences, communication barriers (e.g., not being able to pick up on subtle body language cues), and complicated technology. These factors have resulted in an increase in work-related stress. Leaders and managers no longer have the convenience of being able to “pop in” and have informal meetings with their colleagues and employees, just make casual conversation with people about their families, and so forth.
The virtual team has transformed how leaders communicate with their teams, and vice versa, and how the teams interact with each other. It’s almost as if some of the traditional, strong characteristics of leadership are being minimized, while the weaknesses are magnified. The qualities of a leader with great verbal communication skills may diminish in a virtual world. As advanced as technology has become, there is no substitute for live, person-to-person communication. A weak leader’s skill may also be magnified. After all, ignoring an e-mail or being evasive is much easier in the virtual world. One-on-one communication makes a significant difference: having coffee, brainstorming together, and sharing what’s going on in our lives are important factors in teamwork. When we work as a team but rarely see each other, it makes things harder, not easier.