Five Digital Leaders to watch in 2021



What makes a digital leader? According to GDS Insights “An effective digital leader will be aware of the business goals of their company and know how their job responsibilities support it”.

Leaders lead. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t always the case. Successful business leaders are innovators, who set the agenda and lead their teams together. More than anything, they are able to see outside the box. Digital leaders tend to have a personal credo, a philosophy which they apply to their work. And happily for us, they’re willing to share it.

Jack Ma, the Chinese business magnate and investor, was the founder of Alibaba group, and its former CEO. For a young man experienced in being an English teacher, with little knowledge of capitalism or how to set up a company, Ma has done exceptionally well to become one of China’s richest people. 

When his company went public, offering $25 billion of shares, it became the largest IPO ever. Unlike most tech founders, according to Gecko and Fly, Ma had absolutely no background knowledge in technology and computers, and often had to fight his own government in order to accomplish his business goals. Although earlier this year his company Ant group had its listing suspended by Chinese financial regulators, Jack Ma is still worth over $70 billion.

Surprisingly it’s Ma’s failures which have contributed to his success as a leader. In fact, when he applied to work at KFC, he discovered that of the 24 people they interviewed, he was the only one who didn’t get a job. Just before he founded Alibaba, his brief Internet venture failed, and in 1999 he struggled to cobble together $60,000 from friends.  How does he explain his success?

Leadership is your instinct, then it’s your training. Leaders are always positive, they never complain”, said Ma. “I know nothing about technology, I know nothing about marketing, I know nothing about the legal stuff. I only know about people”.

So what makes William Erbey a popular choice in articles about which digital leaders to follow? It’s his ability to predict what’s next on the horizon. The serial entrepreneur and angel investor, who founded six multibillion-dollar public companies, predicted the future of higher education would increasingly rely on online learning, in combination with regular campus activity. And his analysis is now coming true in other areas of business and social activity, as a result of the worldwide COVID19 pandemic.

“It’s the future of digital infrastructure that is the key,” says Erbey. In the context of the coronavirus, Erbey highlights that entire industries around the world are digitizing “The continued spread of COVID19 has forced universities to offer online classes in more significant numbers than ever before and forced businesses to digitize their operations..”

Erbey, who founded System73, which brought the world an intelligent content distribution solution, was one of the first to recognize that “viewers’ immense appetite for more bandwidth may ultimately negatively impact their experience.”

And his philosophy for success in business management? “Hire the best people possible. Agree upon high-level goals/objectives and get out of their way. Make certain that you have more than sufficient capital and liquidity to grow the business. Establish a culture of hard work and attention to detail while simultaneously encouraging inductive thinking. Often, onlookers see the final result without the work and effort that have gone into that result”.

For the last six years Mary Barra has been the chairwoman and chief executive officer of General Motors Co., And to many a heroine of the city. Under her leadership, her company ‘envisions a world with zero crashes, to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion, so customers get back a precious commodity-time’.

Barra started life with a BSC in electrical engineering, then a Masters in Business Administration from Stanford Graduate School of Business. She joined GM in 1980 and made it up through the ranks, arriving to face a crisis affecting the ignition switch system of some of her products, and a series of other recalls. It was even suggested that ‘women were breaking the glass ceiling, only to tumble off a figurative cliff’.

Her success lay in her tapping her deep knowledge of GM, combined with the ability to activate and direct the positive energy of her staff. Before she was appointed CEO, Barra spoke candidly to her staff, with a tendency to be forthright. In an interview with Fortune magazine, she decided to tell it as it was. 

“No more crappy cars. Sometimes so many boundaries put on them [employees] that we didn’t give them a recipe for success. So now we’re saying no excuses. If it’s budget, if it’s resources, we have to do great cars, trucks and crossovers and it’s our job to enable you to do that.”

Barra as CEO focused on a new set of core values; customers, relationships and excellence. “We act with integrity. We are driven by ingenuity and innovation. We have the courage to do and say what’s difficult. Each of us takes accountability for results and has the tenacity to win!”, she said.

Finally, what discussion of digital leadership would be complete without a word from the CEO of Apple’s Tim Cook, who took over Apple after its founder, Steve Jobs, succumbed to cancer in 2011. Tim leads the most valuable company in the world. Five years ago, he was asked to give his commencement speech at George Washington University. 

Discussing leadership, he analyzed what was behind making a good decision; was it facts, figures or feelings? He said “There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate – when a particular course of action just feels right. And, interestingly, I’ve discovered it’s in facing life’s most important decisions that intuition seems the most indispensable to getting it right!”.

It appears that with all the research analysis in the world available at our fingertips, we still need to rely on our gut feelings to make the right leadership calls, which is strangely reassuring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *