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The Rise of Virtual Leadership

The Rise of Virtual Leadership


Virtual LeadershipBy Melissa Layne, Director of Research Methodology and Editor-in-Chief for Internet Learning Journal

Are leaders born or made?  This widely debated question has been a topic of conversation for decades. I decided to ruminate upon this question after being chosen as the recipient of the Wagner Award for Distance Education Leadership, sponsored by Pearson Learning Solutions. Recipients of this award were asked to deliver a short 10-minute acceptance speech, so I chose the controversial born versus made question to frame my speech.

Existing research on leadership largely focuses on leader effectiveness. Behavioral researchers have uncovered certain traits, abilities, behaviors, and situational aspects that led to leaders being able to influence followers toward accomplishing work-related goals. However, as a leader for an all online university who works remotely, I began to contemplate these characteristics and how they manifest in a virtual leadership position.

Paradigm Shift: Face-to-Face Leadership Versus Virtual Leadership

Not surprisingly, the dearth of academic research comparing face-to-face leadership to virtual leadership concludes that levels of leadership effectiveness are very similar. This is because the fundamental goals and objectives of leadership remain the same. Dr. Phil Ice Vice President of Research and Development for American Public University System, reiterates this similarity:

“As the physical and virtual worlds increasingly converge, defining mutually exclusive characteristics in either realm is becoming increasingly less meaningful. The person who excels at face-to-face contact is now being asked to adapt to a partially distance based paradigm. Similarly, the leader who can capture paralinguistic cues at a distance must also be proficient at interactions when meeting colleagues in person. As such, being an effective leader is, if anything, become more complex as the physical/virtual convergence continues to accelerate.”

While definitions of a physical and virtual leader are becoming increasingly blurred as most of the characteristics of leader effectiveness are the same, the obvious difference lies in how goals and objectives are met. We can examine these differences in physical versus virtual leadership in terms of skills and personal attributes.


Virtual leadership tends to require frequent online communication; therefore, virtual leaders must have strong verbal and written communication skills, and digital technology skills. These skills include the ability to:

  • Quickly respond to questions or concerns
  • Clearly communicate goals and objectives toward supporting and developing self-regulation among a virtual team
  • Use social networking technologies to connect with key constituencies

Personal Attributes

Additionally, virtual leaders should possess certain attributes that support the institution’s mission and overall dynamics by being able to:

  • Maintain an acute awareness of paralinguistic emotional cues such as stress, pride, desire, motivation, and inspiration
  • Have an open mind
  • Be flexible and adaptable
  • Understand other cultures and the related communication nuances
  • Approach complex situations with high levels of optimism, energy, and honesty

Going back to the opening question—are leaders born or made? In the virtual leadership context, they are made, with the possible exception of the very young cadre of leaders who grew up digitally. It is unfortunate that many candidates for remote positions are hired on the basis of traits such as extraversion and intelligence or previous successes within traditional leadership environments and then don’t quite measure up in the virtual environment.

Continued growth in remote leadership positions will make it necessary to move beyond traditional competencies and attributes and work within the idiosyncrasies of the virtual environment in order to understand and appreciate what it takes to lead from a distance. Once we do, we might just be that much closer to ending the debate about whether leaders are born or made.

About the Author

Melissa Layne, Ed.D., is the Director of Research Methodology at American Public University System. In addition to her role at APUS, she serves as the Editor-in-Chief for the Internet Learning Journal.


To read more articles by Dr. Layne, visit:

Internet Learning: An Open Access Journal Documenting Digital Changes in Academics
Emerging Trends in Digital Scholarship – Authorship: Part I








Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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