Amit S. Mukherjee on leading in the digital world: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Amit S. Mukherjee is Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Hult. Earlier, he taught at IMD, Babson, and INSEAD. Among other professional roles, he has been a CXO of a NASDAQ-listed digital technology company and a practice leader at two major consulting companies. During his time outside academia, he led, co-led, or advised CXOs of global companies on, “can’t be done” digital and non-digital technology projects. Technology projects often led to his developing corporate strategy and addressing leadership challenges.

MIT Press (and Sloan Management Review) published Amit’s April 2020 book, Leading in the Digital World: How to Foster Creativity, Collaboration, and Inclusivity in their “Management on the Cutting Edge” series. Strategy+Business, Publishers Weekly, and HBS Alumni News, among others, have recommended the book. His prior book, The Spider’s Strategy, was named “One of the 30 best business books of 2009.” He has also published articles in the Sloan Management Review, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Business Insider and other business-oriented media.

Amit earned his doctorate from the Harvard Business School, MBA from the Darden School (UVA), and bachelor’s in engineering from BITS Pilani (India). He has lived in five countries and has worked in many more.

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Now please shift your attention to Leading in the Digital World. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

FT Press published my first book, The Spider’s Strategy in 2008. Instead of telling executives in established companies to “emulate Silicon Valley,” I had addressed their unique challenges in the digital world. Some of those ideas are now taught in business schools. I deliberately ignored the topic of leadership.

I started wrestling with leadership issues in 2012 because I felt that most leadership academics were ignoring the implications of the digital age—they viewed technology as a tool, nothing more. In 2015, when I joined IMD, one of the world’s top business schools, I started researching and teaching about this issue. I knew I was on the right path because my executive education classes started getting oversubscribed and several brand name global companies invited to give keynotes for top executives. I finished most of the research by late 2018 and submitted the final draft to the publisher in the summer of 2019.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Books on leadership are usually very US-centric. Instead, I looked at leadership across the world, in part collecting data from a survey of 700 executives. Roughly a third each were in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and Asia. One element of this dataset surprised me. Everywhere (including the US) the executives felt that the performance of their own companies lagged what the digital world was demanding. Continental Europeans reported the largest gaps, which either made them the most pessimistic or the most realistic.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

The ideas didn’t change once the research was done. How the book conveyed those ideas did.

Just before I started writing the first draft, a group of entrepreneurs I was mentoring told me to make the book “tweetable.” I took their advice; anecdotes and reminiscences dominated while the research lurked in the background. Well, MIT Press is a university press and books are peer-reviewed. Academic peer-reviewers are SERIOUS people and they demanded a more formal style.

The published version is still written for practitioners; unlike academics, they remember stories more easily than they remember theory. However, the research foundations are now crystal clear. Most readers will see the research as necessary elements of my story-telling style. The few who may wish to find the supporting research can do so easily. I have to admit that I actually like this final form better. It replicates how I teach—and I don’t tweet.

In your opinion, what are the specific unique challenges for those who lead in the digital age?

Leadership in the digital era must account for two sweeping changes. First, for the first time in over a century, business that are flourishing are emphasizing creativity—doing things that have never been done before instead of single-mindedly pursuing productivity—doing more with less. Two decades into the 21st century, most other businesses haven’t embraced this shift. Moreover, nor has most business school curricula. Add to that the fact that around the world, primary and secondary schools beat creativity out of students. We stay moored to old thinking while seeking to succeed in new goals. That won’t happen.

Second, around the world, the twentieth century was about co-located people, who mostly looked like us, talked like us, ate similar things, went to schools we recognized, were ruled by the same or similar politics, worshiped the same or similar gods, and so on. We could look into their eyes and break bread with them. If they were different, we understood the differences, even if we were biased in our own favor.

In contrast, the digital age is about distributed people: the person most important for your success may be half-way across the world, profoundly different from you in every possible way. Now, being inclusive and accepting of differences is existentially important. Collaboration must go way beyond saying, “I believe in win-win.” The good news here is while the rest of us struggle with this idea, young people everywhere, who grew up with computers attached to their heads, get it.

Leaders who fail to make these mindset switches are unlikely to succeed and will endanger their organizations. That’s why the subtitle of the book refers to creativity, collaboration, and inclusivity.

Which specific dos and don’ts should they keep in mind?

I’m won’t answer this question as asked; let me explain why. In the book, I argued against lists of “five things that will make you a success.” I used an extended example of a recent incident at Google that made the headlines globally: A male engineer published a “manifesto” claiming “women can’t code.” No five-things-to-do list would ever prepare him work in, let alone lead, a team that included women. Instead, the book discusses mindset and behavior changes we need, and actions we must take. It then guides readers on how to pick a coherent set of changes to work on that make sense for the reader’s current professional context.

I’m not ducking the question so your readers must buy my book. Indeed, as you know, the book’s preface begins with the words, “‘What makes this book different?’ Don’t buy, borrow, or read this book if my response doesn’t (at least) intrigue you.” In the same vein, here’s a different answer to your question directed at those who may not want to read a complete book: Re-read my last response on what makes the digital age different. If you agree, make your own list of mindsets, behaviors, and actions YOU need to change, given your current context. That list will be just as good as, if not better than, a contextless list of dos and don’ts I provide here.

How specifically are digital technologies “upending the nature of work and organization structures and, hence, the context for leadership”?

Digital technologies are merely following a centuries-old pattern of transformational change. They are changing work by making work thought driven, not muscle powered. They are changing organizations by enabling work to be distributed over time and across geography. Put these together and you can’t help but realize that while 20th century leaders largely led co-located people with shared cultures and environments, 21st century leaders have to lead distributed teams whose members may have nothing in common with each other. Moreover, while the 20th century leaders could see what their people were doing, 21st century leaders often can’t. In particular, they can’t see thought driven effort—ideas, concepts, and the like—that are “done” but not shared. And so, the context for leadership is profoundly changed.

Why do leadership technologies thrive, at least for a period of time?

Jaikumar’s research on transformative technologies showed that once they take hold in one organization, competitors must adopt them and the work practices and organizational structures they require. That’s because the adopters dramatically outperform the laggards. So, any organization that doesn’t adapt dies. With ever-broadening adoption, the new ideas thrive. The logic of this argument is already playing out in the digital age, as your readers will undoubtedly conclude from their own experiences.

Why do they eventually fail?

They don’t actually fail; their use gets restricted when the next transformative technologies arise. We still use micrometers which were first created in the eighteenth century, but they are not central to most work. Our companies are still structured in functions—as they were commonly done over a century ago; however, since quality technologies started taking hold about thirty years now, we have declaimed, “Break down the silos!” To do so, we have superimposed cross-functional teams across the functions.

Now, with digital technologies, we still have functions and teams, but are also creating networks of companies and people who work together across organizational boundaries. Among the 700 executives I surveyed, for example, over 90% worked on teams with non-co-located members, over 85% had team members based in other countries, and about 65% had team members who worked for other companies.

When did the Digital Epoch begin?

Cut-offs between epochs are not clean-cut and precise. Adjacent epochs may overlap for decades, since not everyone adopts the newest transformative technologies immediately. To appreciate this, reflect on your own experiences: So many small businesses still don’t have their own websites.

More specifically, computers have existed for many decades now, but most work in the 1970s wasn’t driven by computers. I roughly date the digital epoch to the mid-1990s, when networks of computers began to appear in businesses.

At which point in its development is it now?

We are still very, very early in the digital epoch.

In Chapter 2, you examine six principles that are changing the context within which leadership must be provided. In your opinion, which of the principles seems to be the most difficult to embrace? Please explain.

The six principles are: Digital technologies deskill the elite (but create fewer jobs than prior transformative technologies); upskill the non-elite (but create fewer jobs than prior transformative technologies); distribute work over time and across geography; make work thought-driven, not muscle-powered; create disproportionate value in unforeseen or unplanned ways; and expose organizations to radical transparency, which may not benefit them, their networks, or society at large. There’s a seventh Principle in another chapter: Digital technologies enable shocks to be transmitted instantly and globally.

Of these, companies have been distributing work for two decades, albeit without always absorbing the implications of doing so. They are also exceptionally focused on de-skilling, perhaps to the detriment of all other activity. The latter is perhaps because they continue to pursue the 20th century goal of constantly increasing productivity.

Their embrace of the other factors is much weaker. For example, they are experiencing the power of radical transparency—think about never-ending stories of hacking, Wikileaks, data breaches and the like for now, though there are other more positive examples—without considering the implications of how they operate. They see disproportionate value being created by unforeseen factors—think of all the apps on your devices which the device makers didn’t create—but don’t seem to consciously create conditions that promote such action routinely. They have completely failed to see the implications of thought-driven work at the individual, organizational and societal levels.

What are the unique challenges that “leading for creativity” seems to pose? Any advice?

Leading for creativity, as I mentioned earlier, is a profound break with the twentieth century, which focused exclusively on productivity. An idea I did not write about in the book (but which I discuss with senior executives) conveys the breadth of organizational impact of that change: Capital budgeting systems are designed to improve productivity, not creativity. Performance evaluation systems are designed to identity and promote people who are more productive at the expense of those who are creative. Interestingly, in the last few years, many American companies have begun abandoning traditional performance evaluation systems. However, few have succeeded in developing good alternatives.

The book focuses on what INDIVIDUALS WHO ASPIRE TO BE LEADERS can do despite these obstacles. For example, I actively urge them to “subvert the performance evaluation system” and give suggestions on how to do so.

CXOs who understand the challenge could do much more: they could actually change the system. After understanding the conditions that engender creativity, CXOs could order reviews of their own systems—like those for capital budgeting or performance evaluation—and ask if these would restrain or promote creativity. Those that would restrain deserve a very close look; they may be inviolable for idiosyncratic reasons, but if not, they should be changed.

In your opinion, how best to construct what you characterize as the “guide rails for creative efforts”?

Let’s understand a simple fact: Creativity can be used for good or bad. Great criminals who pulled off crimes that made them parts of our folklore—for example, stealing a famous painting from a heavily protected museum—were often extremely creative.

So, leaders need to set ethical guideposts to shape acceptable creative behavior. In the book, I don’t specify good or bad ethical guideposts myself. Instead, I urge leaders to ensure that their creative efforts are bound by whatever they think is ethical. I also provide guidance on how to set up such guide rails. For example, just reflect on the Principles that say work is distributed and thought driven.

What guide rails do you need for a specific ethical norm for people working far from you, doing work you can’t supervise?

My specifying specific ethical guideposts for others would have been an exercise in futility. If you are an adult and you don’t think integrity is important, my book won’t convince you otherwise. Moreover, in the early decades of the digital age, it would be supremely arrogant for me to prescribe a whole array of behaviors that will be considered ethical or not in the decades to come. So, I urge readers, as I urge executives and my students, to become science fiction aficionados. Good, near-future science fiction brilliantly illustrates the types of ethical choices leaders may have to confront. Think about those and you will be able to create the guide rails you need for creativity in your specific context.

Please explain your reference to the “uncrossable lines” in Chapter 9.

Uncrossable lines are your most important ethical constraints, ones which you will absolutely not violate. Consider Apple, not because I think it is an exemplar of ethical behavior, but because it has done a really good job of specifying what its Board and executive officers consider ethical. Apple specified six corporate values in its 2019 proxy statement. Only two of these did it further classify as “human rights.” While the other four are critically important, these two are its uncrossable lines. Want to know why Apple defied the FBI and refused to unlock a terrorist suspect’s iPhone? Go look at what it considers a human right. By the same token, if Apple violates its own uncrossable lines, that too will be immediately apparent to the world at large (radical transparency, one of the principles, at work).

How best to determine one’s “strategic intent”? What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when doing so?

Gary Hamel and the great C.K. Prahlad created the term “strategic intent” to differentiate the behaviors of US and Japanese companies. US companies, they said, had strategies, statements that told their people, “Go take THAT mountain.” Japanese companies, they said, told their people, “Be mindful of where we are going. Take ANY higher ground that will help us get there.” The US way prescribed what and how. The Japanese gave flexibility with the how in the pursuit of the what.

This distinction is an important one to keep in mind in the early decades of the digital epoch. Prescribe everything and you will fail to capture the benefits of the Principle of unforeseen, unpredicted value. Prescribe nothing and your actions will be scattershot and unlikely to generate any value. Your strategic intent can help you set a goal and yet give your team the flexibility to take advantage of local conditions, unforeseen changes in technological trajectories, and the like. When you do set up your strategic intent, however, don’t forget to reinforce your uncrossable lines.

How best to formulate one’s personal leadership philosophy?

Let’s start with what I mean by that term.

Decades ago, as an MBA student in a brand name school, I seethed during the first three weeks of class. One professor, who insisted on calling students, mister X or miss Y (yes, miss; it was the early 1980s), used to call me, “Yes, you.” One day something our Organizational Behavior professor had said in every single one of his classes suddenly made sense. A problem, he used to declare, was a situation, “where you feel bad and you don’t do anything about it.” I confronted the offending professor publicly and taught him to pronounce my name. He never made it to “Mr. Mukherjee” but I did become “Mr. Mucker.” He also began calling the other “Yes, yous” by some approximations of their names. The OB prof’s statement became the first element of my personal leadership philosophy.

Every other class added another element. For example, from statistics, I learnt, “If perfect information won’t change your mind, imperfect information never will.” So, both as a consultant and an executive, I never asked for information which wouldn’t change my mind. Everyone who worked with me knew that they could ALWAYS ask me to justify why I wanted a specific bit of information—and then suggest alternatives that, unknown to me, would serve my needs better. Contrast that with the millions of hours devoted in most companies to creating reports no one reads.

So, what does this have to do with the book? Any book like mine suggests many things readers should do. Doing all at any given point in time is simply not possible. So, I define a process by which readers can choose the lessons they want to incorporate in their professional lives. These, together with other things they value, would constitute their personal leadership philosophies. They could use their personal leadership philosophies not just to guide their own behavior, but to succinctly describe to others how they lead in the digital world.

In your opinion, to what extent (if any) can a supervisor help to develop each of their direct reports to develop their own personal leadership philosophy?

A supervisor can demonstrate her or his own personal leadership philosophy (even without espousing one). Some subordinates may like elements and adopt them. However, no supervisor can force a subordinate to believe what he/she does. The subordinates may follow those ideas while they have no choice but will abandon them at the first opportunity.

My inclusion of the word “personal” in the phrase is deliberate. Countless people lived with my “perfect information” belief. I doubt if all still use some variation of that ideal in their own lives.

Please share your thoughts about what effective collaboration requires of those involved.

We have reduced collaboration to a buzzword, win-win. I extensively quote Jean-Francois Baril, the former Chief Procurement Officer of Nokia in its heyday as a cell phone maker. Under him, Nokia won many awards for collaborative supply networks. A counterpart at another company once told Baril, “Do you know what win-win means to me? It means Nokia wins the first time and Nokia wins the second time.”

We love saying “let’s find a win-win solution” even in conditions when win-win may make no sense. Consider what Megan Rapinoe is doing with the US Soccer Federation. She is seeking equal pay for professional women soccer players. She will only get it if she wins and the Soccer Federation loses. Clearly a situation where the moral, ethical outcome—for me anyway and certainly for many women—is win-lose, not win-win.

Overuse and abuse of win-win as a buzzword has taken away focus from true collaboration at a point in time when we need it the most. True collaboration requires focusing on a community that must, and chooses to, truly collaborate. As my Rapinoe example suggests, it requires understanding the values at stake and choosing members of the community carefully. It requires building trust and a shared identity. It requires demanding of the members a commitment to behavior that goes above and beyond what is merely market driven.

You have much of substantial value to say about great leadership. In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a great follower?

That’s a really good question. Throughout the book, I refer to “aspiring leaders” because you can’t be a great leader if, as a follower, you don’t inculcate the mindsets and behaviors and practice the actions you need as a leader. There’s no magic switch to be turned on when someone taps you on the shoulder and anoints you as the designated leader.

If you don’t believe in the importance of truly being inclusive, you will mess up when you first lead a multi-cultural, gender-unbiased team. If you do truly believe in inclusivity, you may still mess up, but those who are aggrieved will likely help you correct the situation. Ditto with collaboration and creativity.

I will add a couple of other thoughts here. One that is explicit in the book concerns learning. If as a follower you don’t focus on constantly learning, you won’t be able to learn to address new challenges as a leader. Another is implicit: If you can’t challenge your superiors when you believe they are wrong—speak truth to power (in a way that is appropriate in your cultural context)—you haven’t, in my opinion, anyway, earned the right to lead.

However different they may be in most respects, what do the greatest leaders throughout history share in common in terms of defining characteristics?

This is a question that fundamentally goes against the intellectual logic of my book and indeed my own personal leadership philosophy and so, I will not answer it. Let me explain why.

Throughout history, men, on average, have kept women from flourishing. So, received wisdom on the “defining characteristics” of leaders are biased towards men. This is true even now. In recent years, I was appalled to hear what two superstar professors of leadership at two top business schools were teaching their students. One was waxing eloquently on the virtues of square jaw while the other was telling women to lower the pitch of their voice.

Similarly, characteristics associated with SOME cultures are considered standard leadership characteristics for ALL people around the world. I focus on one word to explain this problem: Decisive. A quintessentially male, white, Anglo-Saxon leadership characteristic. You won’t find too many decisive leaders in South East Asia or South India, but trust me, that doesn’t make leaders from those parts of the world any less effective.

Because of these problems I urge aspiring leaders to carefully monitor their “language of leadership.” I urge them to focus on leadership effectiveness and not on characteristics associated with leadership in their own cultures.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in  will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

In addition to advice on being inclusive, the most basic advice I give people who are starting out is: build a broad wingspan, not a long tail. Our education systems are focused on building expertise and early years in most companies are focused on making people good in a narrow field of work. We do need our doctors and engineers to have expertise, and if that’s your goal, I will thank you for mastering your field.

However, if you wish to be a leader in the digital world, recognize that we need leaders to be able to—here I am quoting a very senior executive I interviewed—“navigate the in-between spaces” that experts avoid. Developing this capability requires as much rigor as does expertise. It requires interest in knowing many things to a “good enough” level. It ALSO requires a commitment to respect expertise, knowing the limits of “good enough” and learning rapidly—from experts—when “good enough” is not enough.

I also urge them to develop comfort with complex and ambiguous situations. That’s why I believe that the best thing one can do early in one’s career is to latch on to ill-defined projects with uncertain goals whose payoffs are unpredictable.

To C-level executives in Fortune 100 companies?

Over the years, I have been an advisor to six Chairpersons or CEOs or OCEO officers of brand name global companies and so, I understand their challenges. The central issue CXOs of large companies must understand is an elephant can’t BE an ant; and conversely, an ant can’t do what an elephant can. Large companies can’t be svelte start-ups; that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed in the digital world, or indeed, change the world. They have to build on their strengths and approach challenges in ways small companies cannot. Where do you start?

If—as in the 2010 IBM survey—you truly wish your leaders were, above all, creative, banish one word (“disruption”) from—and sharply reduce the use on another word (“productivity”) in—your corporate vocabulary. Words matter; they shape our thoughts just as our thoughts shape them. If your people are focused on disruption, they are not focused on something large companies can do well—collaborate to build powerful networks. If they are thinking all the time about productivity, they can’t be creative.

Change your language of leadership. In recent times, companies like J&J, Daimler, and IBM have embraced this change, initiating CXO led projects to truly embrace inclusivity.

Initiate reviews of your capital budgeting and performance evaluation systems. Find out the names of the most creative people you had on your staff who left to pursue their creative dreams elsewhere. Your screen for your reviews is simple: What do we need to change so that these specific people would have chosen to stay?

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Smaller/mid-sized companies have similar challenges, to some degree and can adapt the ideas above. They have one more: Often a handful of people—the owners, founders, or “friend of the boss”—have disproportionate power. HIPPO, or the “highest paid person’s opinion” overrides all else. This too can adversely affect creativity in particular because these few hold on to things that originally made them successful. CEOs here must address this issue.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Here’s the most obvious question: “I decided to interview you because I liked the book. You, the author, of course love it. However, is there independent support that what you say make sense, particularly since you are asking people to change how their mindsets, behaviors and actions?”

Here’s my response: MIT Press, the book’s publisher, is a university press. All its publications have to be peer-reviewed, as indicated earlier. This book was peer-reviewed twice. Moreover, it was co-published by the Sloan Management Review, one of the top management journals of the world. The two organizations produce a handful of books each year in a series called “Management on the Cutting Edge” which consists of books they believe have the power to change how we think of business.

Additionally, several reviewers and magazines have praised its thinking. Here are extracts from three key INDEPENDENT sources:

An “intriguing new book” that “makes a convincing case that digital technologies are creating new contexts for leadership.” —Strategy+Business

“A canny manual … Among the welter of books claiming to direct leaders in the digital age, Mukherjee’s swiftly executed, neatly encapsulated view of digital changes’ impact on business is specifically focused enough to deliver value; it doesn’t provide answers to all the questions, but it does lay out solid starting points for framing them.” ―Publishers Weekly

“In Leading in the Digital World, Amit Mukherjee argues that since digital technologies are changing everything else, how could they not change leadership ideologies and styles? Offering a radical rethinking of leadership, Mukherjee shows why digital technologies call for a new kind of leader, one who emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and inclusivity.”  ―Harvard Business School Alumni News

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Here is a direct link to Part 1 of this interview.

Amit cordially invites you to check out these resources.

My website ( has links to many recent publications that are related to the book and the full texts of my older writings (dating back to The Spider’s Strategy) that are still relevant. There is information on consulting, executive education, and keynote work I do. If you still need to be convinced to buy the book, you can download a couple of its chapters!

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