Virtual leadership cannot be delegated

Virtual Leadership
Stephan Dohrn
Stephan Dohrn is partner of Radical Inclusion a training and consulting company specialized in the new ways of working.
Stephan Dohrn


We help our clients create productive and engaged remote teams through training and consulting.
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Stephan Dohrn
Stephan Dohrn
Stephan Dohrn

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Are there new undiscovered success factors for virtual leadership ?

Globalization and new technologies challenge the leadership capabilities of executives. Are new leadership qualifications required? Does leadership behavior have to be changed? Are there new undiscovered success factors for virtual leadership ?

In this article we argue that the new challenge for virtual leadership is not to develop new leadership principles, but that it lies in the mechanics of managing a workforce whose primary hurdle to communication and collaboration is distance. In this new context, command and control fail systematically, so, first of all, leaders now have to take decade-old leadership lessons serious and practice them.

Executives also have to realize that virtual leadership is different! Distributed and virtual work is not face-to-face with new tools. It requires the domination of new technologies and a re-thinking of how work is organized.

Distributed work does not require a new leadership paradigm

Back in the day, things were different. Managers were in touch mostly with their direct reports, teams would see each other daily, most team members had a similar cultural background, and everybody worked similar hours. Today’s ways of organizing have changed much of those attributes:

New organizational units are

  • distributed across multiple sites, often over several countries,
  • located in global organizations across different time zones, and
  • organized in a matrix structure.

It is easy to list these characteristics but that does not express the entire management challenge, as each of these factors increase complexity considerably. When employees and colleagues are distributed, it means that they work in independent contexts. This has consequences. Corporate Cultures in distributed locations are different and lead to divergent interests. People of different national culture and professional background have a completely different understanding of the same concepts.

Yet, leadership in a specific management situation still means guiding people who share a common goal to contribute to its achievement. It involves the coordination of employees and their work, and deals with motivation, giving purpose, solving conflicts and helping solutions emerge.

Over the years many keywords and concepts have been introduced in the leadership literature but ultimately, they all express a few key demands on executives: confidence, participation, authenticity, fault tolerance. Also working on ’emotional intelligence’ is not wrong, and similarly, ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ names a leadership skill that is undeniably important in a situation of constant change and uncertainty.

In short: Many correct things have been said and written about the concept of leadership in the last 20 years. For virtual leadership nothing fundamental has to be added. The principles of good leadership hold true even in the face of new technologies and distributed work.

Good leadership now has to be lived

If they wanted to, in the past, executives could safely ignore what they had learned during leadership training after returning to their desks. Learning about good leadership was one thing, management action another and many managers have acted contrary to the principles of modern leadership and still had and have success.

In the virtual work situation, however, carelessness in leadership will be punished: With distance. Appointments are not met, employees do not appear to the agreed-upon meetings. In meetings they leave – either mentally or even quite real by terminating the online connection. Collaboration simply no longer takes place.  And worst of all, one can hardly do anything against it. Classical command and control actions and methods dissipate in virtual space.

We finally have to get serious with the development of trust between the members of a team, developing a joint understanding for an objective, and clarifying the conditions for motivated action in the organization. Actually, we have known how to do it all along: take employees and colleagues seriously, take time for conversations and keeping in touch, do not let conflicts simmer until they explode.

Virtual is different and requires work to be re-organized

Distributed work first and foremost means virtual work. Communication is done via technical tools and platforms. It also means that a large part of the work is done in a way we call asynchronous. Employees contribute at different times, and, still, the results have to be coordinated. Virtual leadership means that work needs to be reorganized, that we need to rethink the logistics and the processes, and adapt them to the virtual work situation.

It is also important that new groups of employees, who are entering the companies and now also hold leadership positions – the digital natives – be integrated with their (quite different) communication styles. Information is no longer kept private within the company, but posted on public platforms. Chats replace e-mails. If the company blocks access, the employees start using their private gadgets and the company is left behind in the fiction of control. Intergenerational work, collaboration between digital natives, digital immigrants and those who want to avoid virtual work, is probably the biggest challenge for leadership as it will shape the transition from the current way of working to new forms of organizing and collaborating.

Some very fundamental questions are emerging. Issues of workplace design and dealing with communication are topics that have to do with leadership in general. Everybody in a leadership position at any level of an organization has to take decisions related to these issues, but no blueprints, no established quality-control concepts exist yet, ready to be applied.

Most – especially upper – managers are not equipped for this shift. They are not familiar with online communication as a dominant component of work. They became managers in a time when the internet and social media did not exist. They use their smart phones as phones and surf the web mainly for private reasons. They learn from their children, yes, but these new experiences are only marginally linked to virtual work.

The logic with which they approach questions of virtual leadership, is that of the face-to-face world. They transfer those patterns one-to-one into the virtual world of work: the rules, practices as well as the success factors. This does not work. Virtual is different.

Managers have to learn the technical skills of online communication

If we look at the corporate reality, executives must go back to management school, before they can realize the full potential that lies in the virtual organization of work and before they are able to take good leadership decisions. But, as said above, it is not the leadership concepts, it is technical skills of online communication they need to learn and experience.

New technologies enable new forms of communication. Distributed staff are connected via chat. What are the rules and etiquette here? You cannot develop good rules for this new form of communication, when you have never ‘chatted’, or have only tried it for fun and not as an integral part of your daily work.

Few top executives know their way around the tools they now need to lead virtual teams. They often depend on help from their assistants. The only universal information delivery tool they use is e-mail. With conference calls and e-mails alone, however, you cannot become an effective leader in a distributed organization.

Familiarity with the technology is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to undertake effective virtual work. You have to go deeper, try out processes, and redefine them. How do you keep in touch with your team members? How do reach decisions? What is your process for conflict resolution? What motivates your team? What keeps them engaged?

Before we can talk about true virtual leadership, a few conditions have to be met. In addition to technology, this is the design of new work processes.That’s drudgery, which takes time and cannot be replaced by second-hand experiences.

Virtual Leadership cannot be delegated, because leadership is not divisible.

This article was written by Hans Gärtner and Stephan Dohrn from

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