How technology forced business leaders to change their habits

"Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life." Oscar Wilde’s quote from 1889 couldn’t be truer than it is today. Technology is our art and as Wilde’s quote suggests, life as we know it imitates this art form to a tee. The recent hi-tech revolution has spawned far more young, liberal, wealthy and authentic leaders than the world ever imagined.

The next generation of leaders in hi-tech have been so influenced by technology that we must take note and paint this picture clearly. But how exactly has this affected their leadership style?

The democratisation of technology

In previous generations, access to key information was concentrated at the top, giving those at the bottom little access. This was common in the more traditional, hierarchical organisational approaches of the time. Fast forward to now, and virtually anyone has access to the information that was previously in the hands of only a few. This makes next generation leaders more egalitarian in their leadership style due to the democratic values associated with the diffusion of information.

Mark Zuckerberg, the 32-year-old Facebook founder and fifth richest person in the world, passionately believes in the power of sharing information no matter your location, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. He is on a mission to connect the world, and currently succeeding, with one billion people on Facebook today. It is no surprise then, that Facebook is known for its open organisational approach. 

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Zuckerberg states: "A lot of the founding principles of Facebook are that if people have access to more information and are more connected, it will make the world better; people will have more understanding, more empathy."

Facebook definitely has organisational hierarchy on a larger scale, but because of the company culture of connectivity and sharing of information, it’s more open than most.

 Since there are no offices, and instead an open floor plan (actually the largest in the world), approaching your supervisor or someone "above you" isn’t intimidating, it’s even encouraged. Core teams are structurally more flat and less hierarchical. Employees feel empowered with tools to make their ideas heard within the company. And lastly, there’s an understanding that Facebook hires the best people around who are unfettered by top-down hierarchy.

Every Friday, Zuckerberg and his executive team hold a weekly all-hands meeting (or Q&A session) where employees can ask anything they want, both in person or using the polling feature on Facebook Groups to ask a question anonymously. This type of transparency is more common in egalitarian workplaces and contributes to a culture that values all employee voices and feedback.

Read: Understanding the rise of the collaborative leadership model

Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh’s famous "holacratic" style of leadership is diffused and boldly egalitarian. Hsieh himself says, "Information is out there for everyone, not just a few as in the days of old. This makes the next generation of leaders more apt to take on a holacratic approach to leadership." Despite Zappos being owned by retail giant Amazon, the company has maintained its core value set, which includes building open and honest relationships. The holacratic approach plays into this, as employees take on roles and responsibilities that suit their natural skill set, rather than going by a rigid job description. Hsieh believes strongly in self-management and self-organisation for creating a successful company. Instead of the traditional org chart, Zappos employees have a work chart where they can take on roles that they are particularly interested in, and this can change everyday. They even have a "Holacracy Implementation Lead", John Bunch, who currently oversees the organization’s shift to make sure it works on the ground.

Authenticity and imperfection

The recent technological growth has ushered in the era of social media, where we, along with next generation leaders share, share and share even more. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter give the public an authentic look into our leaders’ private lives. Leaders of the past tightly guarded their private lives, rarely giving glimpses into their softer personas behind the desk. Now, the personalisation that technology has brought on makes us feel as though we know our leaders on a personal level. Because of the technology that makes it possible, these leaders show an authentic, honest and sometimes imperfect side to themselves.

Sheryl Sandberg is a perfect example. The COO of Facebook published an honest, authentic and heartfelt Facebook post about the gut-wrenching pain of losing her husband Dave. Her bravery in vulnerability highlights the impact that social media has on leaders’ authentic connection to their employees and to the larger public. 

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The liberalization of next generation leaders

Young next generation leaders, many of whom are in Silicon Valley, care deeply about social and geopolitical issues such as LGBT rights, the environment, impoverished nations and the disadvantaged in their communities. The liberal Northern California environment breeds leaders who care about these issues and actually do something about them, whether financially or through their political influence. Furthermore, because of the wealth amassed through technology, next generation leaders can afford to put their money where their mouth is.

Hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley give a ton to charity, especially in their immediate geographic area. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan opened up a private school for underprivileged youth in East Palo Alto, a small and economically disadvantaged city located next to affluent Palo Alto. Facebook is located on the east side of Menlo Park, historically an industrial and economically disadvantaged area, now revitalized from Silicon Valley workers moving in.

Zuckerberg believes in a "basic moral responsibility" to orient his investments to causes that will shape the future. He and Dr. Chan vowed to donate 99 per cent of their Facebook shares to charitable causes (estimated at $45 billion), and set up a trust to manage the money that will focus on "personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities".

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Tony Hsieh grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and started Zappos in San Francisco. The company eventually moved to Henderson, Nevada then to downtown Las Vegas in 2013. Since the move to Downtown, he’s on a mission to change Vegas for the better. He invested $350 million to start Downtown Project, a wide-ranging vision to turn downtown Las Vegas into an ideal city in the desert, which historically has lagged behind economically. The project was originally meant to create the perfect environment for Zappos employees to live, work and play; the project turned into much more and was the impetus for the area’s economic turnaround.

Zuckerberg and Hsieh’s value of contributing to the larger community, whether financially or through their social influence, highlight how technology’s wealth and liberal social values propel other next generation leaders to follow suit and make a lasting impact.

The way forward

In the conservative 50s, no corporate leader could have dreamed that some of the richest and most powerful leaders in a half-century’s time would don hoodies and Converse to work, be half their age and donate a huge portion of their money to charity. All the arguments against technology may have their place, but as technology moves forward, so do the new generation of leaders that it created. We can thank technology for the popularisation of holacracy and a flattened organisational approach, hi-tech’s intentional encouragement of putting down devices for the sake of workers’ wellness, the mind-blowing benefits allotted to hi-tech employees, leaders’ public authenticity and maybe most importantly, next generation leaders’ responsibility to the greater good. The leadership of today has been turned upside down by technology; young leaders are paving the way, one post and one perk at a time.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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