E-Leadership: Leading in the Age of Digitization

by Antonia Hein |



Globalization, change and development of technology as well as digitization provide organizations with „a new set of tools that dictate a need to organize work in new ways“ (Pulley and Sessa, 2001, p.225). Among other things these new ways incorporate so-called virtual teams, „a new form of structure, supported by enabling information and communication technologies […]“ (Kayworth and Leidner, 2002, p.8). Often, the members of such teams are geographically distributed and cross-functional (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007). These new structures of work lead to the necessity of a new or redefined leadership style, called e-leadership.

Following the approach of Avolio and Kahai (2003, cited in DasGupta, 2011, p.5) e-leadership is „a fundamental change in the way leaders and followers relate to each other within […] and between organizations“, nevertheless including some fundamentals of traditional leadership.

Avolio, Kahai and Dodge (2000, p.617) defined e-leadership „as a social influence process mediated by Advanced Information Technology (AIT) to produce a change in attitudes, feelings, thinking, behaviour, and/or performance with individuals, groups and/or organizations“. Furthermore they argue that „e-leadership can occur at any hierarchical level […] and can involve one-to-one and one-to-many interactions within and across large units and organizations“.

Another approach describes e-leadership as a reference „to leaders who conduct many of thee processes of leadership largely through electronic channels“ (Zaccaro and Bader, 2003, cited in DasGupta, 2011, p.2).


What exactly does E-Leadership mean?

E-leaders or virtual team leaders „rely on electronic communication technology to send and receive information and thus need to modify the ways in which they provide feedback and gather data“ (Berry, 2011, p.199).

Due to the change of technology business leaders are facing new challenges in the way of leading. To achieve a better understanding of these challenges, Pulley and Sessa (2001) interviewed 35 executives from a wide array of industries. Their survey showed that „adapting traditional leadership skills to a technologically-mediated environment adds a layer of complexity that has not existed before“ (Pulley and Sessa, 2001, p.226). They found the five following paradoxes or complex challenges to be caused by the new technologies:

  1. Swift and mindful: „The dilemma […] is how to balance efficient, habitual responses with fresh ideas and innovation.“
  2. Individual and community: „[…] how to create ways for individuals to be autonomous without feeling isolated.“
  3. Top-down and grass-roots: „The dilemma […] is to decide when to use control while also increasing collaboration.“
  4. Details and big picture: „[…] how to sift through vast amounts of data and weave it together so that it becomes meaningful.“
  5. Flexible and steady: „[…] the dilemma: maintaining focus on a common direction and purpose in the midst of continuous change.“ (ibid., pp.226-227.)

Obviously traditional leaders are confronted with these paradoxes as well as e-leaders. This makes clear that „virtual team leaders still need to understand the fundamental principles of team dynamics and accountability as on any team […]“ (Berry, 2011, p.199). Nevertheless the paradoxes face the e-leaders with more complex challenges due to the minimum or even non-existent face-to-face communication.

Especially this minimum of face-to-face communication leads to one of the key challenges for e-leadership: the trust-building in virtual teams. Following the assumption of Avolio et al. (2000, p. 652), „trust is critical in virtual teams because direct supervision, a common form of social control in traditional teams, is not feasible“. In addition working in virtual teams excludes many factors (geographical proximity, similarity in backgrounds etc.) „which contribute to social control and coordination“ (ibid).

Malhotra et al. (2007, p.68) summarize the challenges as follows: Virtual team leaders must overcome coordination barriers associated with working across distance and time, cross cultural and language barriers, trust and team cohesion barriers created when team members have very limited opportunities to identify common values […]. To overcome these challenges Malhotra et al. (2007) identified six leadership practices of effective virtual team leaders.


Effectiveness and Necessity of E-Leadership

In general, „leaders of virtual teams spend time mentoring the team members, enforcing norms, and recognizing and rewarding members and the team“ (Malhotra et al., 2007, p.61). Furthermore they „have to ensure that the unique knowledge of each distributed person […] is being fully utilized“ (ibid). To identify the „best practice“ of e-leadership in action, Malhotra et al. (2007) interviewed 55 virtual teams in 33 different companies. The following table shows these practices of effective virtual team leaders in detail (ibid., pp.61-67):

Table: Practices of Effective Virtual Team Leaders (Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen, 2007, p.62)

Already in 2001 Duarte and Snyder identified four critical competencies in leading effective virtual teams which combine the just described practices:  communication, establishing expectations, allocating resources, and modelling desired behaviour (Duarte and Snyder, 2001 cited in Berry, 2011, p.200). In another approach Kayworth and Leidner (2002) created 13 virtual teams and identified four characteristics of effective virtual team leaders from the team members‘  perspective: „[…] the ability to communicate, leader understanding (empathy), role clarity (definition) and leader attitude toward team members“ (ibid., p.24).  These characteristics support the effective practices from the leaders‘ perspective provided in Table 1. Furthermore, they related the perceived effectiveness of  e-leadership by followers to the leader’s ability to demonstrate a wide variety of behavioural repertoires (ibid., p.29). Thus, effective leaders should display complex managerial skills and different roles simultaneously in the given virtual situations.

Moreover, Cohen and Gibson (2003) related the effectiveness of virtual teams to five factors: „[…] having a supportive organizational culture, some characteristics of the task itself, technology use, team member characteristics supported by training and development, and work and team processes“ (Cohen and Gibson, 2003 cited in Berry, 2011, pp.200-201).

In addition to these research findings, Ziek and Smulowitz (2014, p.108) followed the approach of the emergent virtual leadership which points out that not all virtual teams have necessarily an assigned leader, „instead, in many virtual teams leaders emerge or move forward on their own […]“. They clarified the importance of the leaders‘ communication and its relation to team effectiveness. „The better an emergent virtual team leader is at communicating to team members the more effective the team will be […], which in turn can lead to a more effectively functioning business unit“ (ibid., pp.115-116).

Regarding all the extra effort necessary for leading virtual teams, the question arises, if it is profitable or efficient to work in virtual teams and to invest in e-leadership.

Often virtual teams consist of geographically dispersed experts, who may have access to better and specialized informations. Consequently, virtual teams are likely to develop better solutions to complex and global problems for organizations (Malhotra et. Al, 2007, p.68). Thus, the new way of working can payoff for organizations.

The already mentioned changing environmental circumstances, like technological change and development, lead to a necessity of virtual teams in today’s global businesses. This makes a transformation from traditional leadership to e-leadership imperative to take advantage of the available technologies (Colfax, Santos, and Diego, 2009, cited in DasGupta, 2011, p.9). Avolio et al. (2000, p.658) even argued that the organizational effectiveness depends partly on the alignment of social and technical systems and demonstrated „[…] the importance of examining the interconnectedness of leadership and information technology systems […]“.

In addition, Shriberg (2009, cited in DasGupta, 2011, p.10) noted that „[..] today virtual leadership is essential for almost any business that strives to grow and expand“.



Regarding the global economic changes as well as the transformations in the working styles of organizations recent researches clarified the necessity of e-leadership. In today’s world it is nearly inescapable to work in virtual teams to take advantage of global informations and expertise. Thus, virtual leaders must use information technologies to enhance the overall team performance and so increase the effectiveness of the business unit (Avolio et al., 2000; Malhotra et al., 2007). By using and focusing on specific effective leadership practices, a virtual team leader can overcome the complex challenges raised from the new nature of the work, including geographical dispersion, different cultures, languages, and time zones. The main aspects of these practices are communication with and understanding (empathy) for the team members.

It was illustrated that virtual team leaders need the ability to use a variety of managerial tools and skills already known from traditional face-to-face working teams, and even more. The skill sets necessary for successful virtual team leading are more complex than for traditional leadership (Berry, 2011, p.202).

E-leadership will play an important role in the years ahead and organizations will make greater effort to prepare and train future virtual team leaders (Malhotra et al.,2007, p.68).



Avolio, B.J., Kahai, S. and Dodge, G.E. (2000): E-Leadership: Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice. In: Leadership Quarterly 11 (4), pp. 615-668.

Berry, G. R. (2011): Enhancing Effectiveness on Virtual Teams. In: Journal of Business Communication 48 (2), pp. 186-206.

DasGupta, P. (2011): Literature Review: e-Leadership. In: Emerging Leadership Journeys 4 (1), pp. 1-36.

Kayworth, T.R. and Leidner, D.E. (2002): Leadership Effectiveness in Global Virtual Teams. In: Journal of Management Information Systems 18 (3), pp. 7-40.

Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A. and Rosen, B. (2007): Leading Virtual Teams. In: Academy of Management Perspective 21 (1), pp. 60-70.

Pulley, M.L. and Sessa, V.I. (2001): E-leadership: tackling complex challenges. In: Industrial and Commercial Training 33 (6), pp. 225-230.

Ziek, P.; Smulowitz, S. (2014): The impact of emergent virtual leadership competencies on team effectiveness. In: Leadership & Organization Development Journal 35 (2), pp. 106–120.

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