The 4Cs of Leadership Styles for Leadership in the Digital Age

The 4Cs of Leadership Styles and Why Leadership Traits Reflect a Continuum

As the world transitions from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age, there are some essential leadership styles which leaders can follow for the present times.

These are Commander, Communicator, Collaborator, and Co-Creator. These four leadership styles are relevant in firms in the Digital Economy as they signify how networked forms of organizational structures are replacing the Top Down and Hierarchical structures and hence, leaders too must adapt to the changed internal and external imperatives.

As organizational theory states that firms and their employees and leaders must “organize themselves” according to the changing external conditions, the 4Cs of leadership styles must also be embraced in response to such changes.

Before we proceed, it is important to note that each of the four leadership styles described can be adopted by business leaders either singly or in combination.

Indeed, as leadership trait theory states, leadership styles are manifested in a “continuum” rather than standalone traits which means that a leader can be a communicator and a collaborator as well as a commander and a co-creator.

This can be seen in the way famous business leaders such as the Late Legendary Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were known to adopt a particular leadership style based on situational and circumstantial conditions.

This situational and circumstantial aspect of leadership is very important for the Digital Age as organizational structures and external imperatives are no longer in “black and white” or in “neat” boxes and instead, what we now have are fungible, flexible, adaptable, and fast changing market conditions replacing certainty, clarity, and linearity.

Leadership Styles for the Digital Age

This is the reason why methodologies such as Agile have become very popular among corporates since they offer them the necessary structure to respond and react to the networked and real time demands of the market.

As theory states, Agile represents a Paradigm Shift in organizational and leadership thought since it is a symbiotic, open system, networked, self sustaining, cross functional, and adaptable and flexible form of working.

As can be seen from the terms used, Agile requires organizational leaders to be more team oriented rather than top down and hierarchical where they need to be collaborative and co-creative working with the teams rather than standalone from them.

Further, Agile also needs a mindset change from the leaders to be more responsive to the teams in a real time manner and subsequently, co-create along with the teams.

Examples from the Real World

Examples of collaborative and co-creative leadership styles can be seen in the way Gig Economy firms such as AirBnB and Uber ensure that they work together and create together where leaders of such firms are actively engaged with customers and employees as well as the other stakeholders such as the hosts in AirBnB.

Of course, communicators also represent a leadership style that is relevant for the Digital Age since networked and flat organizational structures need leaders to articulate their vision and mission to employees and bring them “on board” and secure their “buy in”.

For instance, Indian business leaders such as NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani of Infosys fame are leaders who were communicators rather than collaborators or co-creators. It is an interesting aspect that these leaders who were heralded as New Age icons are now considered a step below the collaborators and the co-creators of the present firms.

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

Having said that, it is also not the case that leadership styles are entirely different between the Industrial Age Firms and the Digital Age firms. Indeed, the first C of leadership style introduced earlier is the Commanding Style where leaders are go-getters as well as Commanders of their firms.

These leaders often give orders and also know “what they are doing” in terms of being “on the ball” or “on top of things”.

An example of such a leader is Elon Musk of Tesla whose firm is a mixed automation and manufacturing firm and hence, needs leaders to be more Industrial Age style and with Digital Age styles thrown in.

Of course, Elon Musk is also a communicator and as can be seen by his recent behavior, tends to get into trouble for being more vocal and voluble.

Recent research shows that Digital Age leaders must guide their followers, be more transparent, and embrace agile methods of working if they are to succeed in the Digital Age.

While the guidance aspect has been the case for leaders even earlier, the need to be transparent is more contemporary as the sheer amount of information online makes it virtually impossible for them to “hide” from their followers.

Some surveys point to how many leaders are “afraid” of being collaborators and co-creators and surprisingly, even communicators as they seek to not move out of their “comfort zone” and their “cocoons”.

While such leaders might deliver results and as we know, that is what counts, there might be problems with being inaccessible that can prove detrimental in the longer term.

Leadership Traits as Chameleons

Lastly, to repeat the key argument, leadership styles are manifested in combination and hence, the “graying” of the spectrum of styles means that analysis of leadership traits take into account the situational and circumstantial aspects.

In other words, leaders must adapt to changes and hence, like a Chameleon, should have the ability to shift from one style to the other. To conclude, leadership in the Digital Age needs some different styles and traits though there are other age old patterns that are evergreen.


Jake, Croman. 2018. The Strengths and Weaknesses of 4 Distinct Leadership Strategies

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