Leadership in the age of immediacy
by Marten Mickos

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We live in a digital age where our humanity is challenged. What humans were mechanically doing is now being automated by software. Tasks that used to require advance planning and a long execution time can now be done immediately with the help of online resources. Orchestration of larger events that required costly and cumbersome intermediaries can now be done directly. The units of resources are becoming more granular, available online through automated interfaces in large liquid marketplaces. Friction is being removed. Access to resources is broader; the industrial world is being democratized. A small startup can disrupt a giant corporation.


Homo Sapiens spent the past tens of thousands of years building societies where we love, live, work and fight tightly together with other humans. But today we are being granularized into individual units – ME INC., one might say – with more power at our fingertips but also more responsibility for ourselves. The direct societal connection we had with other humans is now becoming an immediacy through digital gadgets we carry with us. Our smartphone may be our best colleague. We are our own CEOs and microentrepreneurs – open source contributors, Uber drivers, and AirBnB hosts.


The abundance of everything at our fingertips risks making us lonelier. But it could also be that we are seeing the early days of a new connectedness of all mankind that can take our civilization to a much higher level. As always when we face change, we are fearful and optimistic at the same time.


The great technological advances of the past decades have also brought with them an entirely new sort of complexity. We live in a distributed system – a networked world where anything can depend on anything. The solution to complexity and societal change is leadership. As Doris Drucker said in 2013: “We are missing one big ingredient in our increasingly complex world: LEADERSHIP”.


We must upgrade the art of leadership to the level of the digital society we now live in. Leaders who used to hide in their offices need to come out and be as immediately available online as all other resources. Communication must be an integral part of everything we do as leaders, and the communication better be authentic. We must make the most of the new digital collaboration tools so that we can orchestrate work across highly diverse teams. Such teams will have full-time employees, part-time employees, outsourced teams, consultants, freelancers and more. They will geographically be dispersed around the globe, representing any number of languages and cultures.


To be successful in their jobs, leaders need to align the varied resources around the purpose and values of the organization. Leadership through command and control will be just a small and rare part of the job. The millennials have come to this world taking societal functionality and fairness as a given (as we hoped they would!), and the way to lead them is to motivate and inspire them, not give them mechanistic orders. Leadership is not about big fish vs. small fish. It’s about empowering all fish and guide them all in the same direction. No organizational unit is as powerful as a group of many acting as one.


Leadership is about setting the corporate culture and stating the purpose of existence. Culture and vision are powerful concepts that carry to the farthest parts of the organization – to employees who work in other locations and to other stakeholders. People need to get together in order to find a common purpose, but between those meetings they may be at their most productive away from headquarters. We must architect our organizations to allow this to happen, and make systems fit to people, and not people to systems.


Software is eating this modern world, and we must in turn eat software. Nearly without exception, our societal and industrial resources will be managed by software systems and controlled through computerized interfaces (application programming interfaces or APIs.


As this happens, we will find it natural to ask whether this means a mechanization of all of mankind. We may wonder if our humanity is at risk. My view is that we are embarking on a path to a new level of consciousness of societal scale that will both safeguard our humanity and provide it with new vistas.


We all have egos that are self-centric. But our brains are eager to collaborate. The more we digitize the world, the better we can connect our world with our brains, and connect our brains with each other. Naturally, our humanity includes all the negative aspects as well. Fear, intolerance, violence, pathological desire for control of others, and other dark sides of humanity will continue to exist. Our leadership and decision-making models must continue to build defenses against such unfavorable behavior.


The collaborative models of the digital world and the new styles of leadership are leading us to a future where we can find fulfilling roles for all humans. Our jobs will change, and the way we think about work will change. But we will not be sidestepped by computerized systems. We will dramatically increase our own abilities to learn and do, and we will find new levels of human inventiveness.

About the author:

Mårten Mickos is a growth company CEO in Silicon Valley with a special passion for leadership and for open collaborative business models. He recently served on the board of Nokia, after a period as CEO at MySQL and is now SVP at HP.



  1. Your sentence “We all have egos that are self-centric. But our brains are eager to collaborate. The more we digitize the world, the better we can connect our world with our brains, and connect our brains with each other” is the key statement here. And one comment: the so called change is going on every second and increasing dramatically in speed so leadership would be the old fashioned word. I prefer social sensitive guidance!

    1. I personally prefer the word “leadership” even “old fashioned” as you said.

      There are cultures which became successful even without considering personal or social sensitivities.

      But then as a leader, you have to manage these social sensitivities to a certain extent beneficial to all. Bear in mind that you cannot give in to all social sensitivities. And this supports the imperative for leadership.

  2. Thankful : What an educative note on how to marriage with an unknown digital transformation that is already around us. It does not include us in the transformation and its normal. one must be prepared and ready to face it, Its called disruption.

    A proposal title will be :
    Disrupt self before you get disrupted
    Hire leadership to deal with complex unknown world.
    Leaders know how to go strategise the difficult journey.

  3. Leaders identify and share with their communities a view of the world in which their existence is less uncertain, which brings them together to collaborate and make it a reality.

    Certainly, the interconnected and decentralized world we have created primarily in the West/Center and which use the tools based on telecommunication are a reality because this way of organizing our work is less uncertain. However, it cannot be denied that this organization has also created centers of power leading to a more inequitable distribution of the benefits.

    All you need do is visit you neighborhood stores to see how much IT these businesses use; very little. The owners cannot afford to spend their time tweeting and posting and re-posting on social networks to engage with and convert customers because this would be inefficient. They cannot afford to even hire someone to engage in these activities because it costs too much. They don’t want to use web based services – although they some times feel obliged to at the client’s request – because giving up such a huge percentage of their sales is penalizing for them. And so and so forth….

    Likewise, virtual companies like those described in the article are idealistic without a mechanism by which uncertainty of payment and of delivery can be satisfied for all the economic actors involved. I have not met one person or business who will work such a high degree of uncertainty be it on the client or vendor side of the equation.

    What Marten describes is entirely in the realm of large established organizations who seek productivity gains by shedding non-essential processes to smaller economic actors. The degree to which this can be done is very much a consequence of the laws in the country of operation.

    Don’t get me wrong. I subscribe entirely to Marten’s point of view. However, I do so with a certain number of caveats and limitations.

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