Social media and leadership: 7 ways the world is changing

social media and leadership

When I was in graduate school, I took what I thought was going to be a “filler” type of class in Business Leadership. It turned out to be one of the most interesting classes I have ever taken and it set in motion a life-long study of what it means to be a leader.

The shrill, noisy, and extemporaneous nature of the social web is not exactly an ideal environment for the traditional notion of leadership. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and have listed below a few ideas I have on social media and leadership. I’d love to hear what you think …

1) How do you exert leadership in an environment that disdains leadership?

Even though any kind of “rules” or hierarchy are disdained on the web, people still have an innate urge to want to know who is in charge … even when nobody is in charge! In a world so densely-packed with information, I sense that people are hungry for real leaders to step up and establish a voice of authority, communicate calmly and clearly, and show others how to make sense of this chaotic world.  What does leadership look like in an environment that shuns leadership? Who are real leaders on the web and why?

2)  Technology has dis-intermediated traditional paths to leadership  

Twenty years ago, working in a traditional company was also your graduate school. There were training programs you accumulated along the way and formal mentoring initiatives to help you figure out how to lead a company.

Today, anybody with a computer can start a business. You don’t need capital or assets or even a production path. You just need a good idea and an ability to create computer code. This is an exciting revolution but what happens when a 22-year-old college dropout is suddenly running a billion dollar company? What replaces the traditional educational ladder? Do we NEED to? Is there still a role for traditional management education?

3) Social media and leadership by hashtag 

In the past few years we have witnessed dramatic examples of social-media-enabled revolutions like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. These were crowd-sourced revolts without a distinct agenda or obvious leader.

Without question, social media helped these initiatives coalesce. But to what end? The power vacuum in the Middle East has been filled with conventional parties again, leading to more discord. I’m not sure what concrete accomplishment the rudderless Occupy Wall Street movement can claim in the end.

These movements had weak, nearly crowd-sourced leadership. It was essentially Hashtag Leadership. The movements became KNOWN but is that an accomplishment? What does the future look like for weak-link leadership?

4) Does the speed of business provide a mandate for kings instead of leaders?

The intense speed of global business has made traditional command-and-control hierarchies obsolete. To compete today, we need to push responsibility, accountability, customer service, innovation, and time to market to “an 11.”

One new leadership model accomplished this better than any other the world has ever seen — Apple, because Steve Jobs was not the company leader. He was its king.

Steve Jobs was unlike any leader I can think of short of a military dictator. His power was so complete that he ordered his board of directors to resign so he could replace them with his hand-picked supporters.

Jobs did a lot right — prioritization and focus, devotion to quality and customers, bold decisiveness, an ability to attract talent, and creative vision for his brand, to name a few. But he was also a nasty, obsessive bully who often put his own ego above the rational needs of his company and his customers. Let’s face it. He would not have lasted in any other publicly-traded company in America.

And yet Apple would not have achieved the breathtaking scale and scope of innovation we have witnessed without this highly unusual corporate structure.  He ruled by instinct, and there is something to be said for that.

But the danger of this was exposed, too when Jobs’ ego and maniacal attention to detail nearly ran strong projects into the ground.  There was no accountability, no checks and balances.

Is this an ideal model for innovation or a recipe for disaster? Do we elevate quirky geniuses or organizational leaders? Can you be both?

5) Transparency and political leadership

I think one contributor to American political paralysis is the harsh transparency and instantaneous public feedback from the social web.

Not long ago, you only had to face your constituents every few months when you planned a trip back home. Now leaders are exposed to the constant clanging of public opinion. They are sometimes fighting for political relevance minute by minute.

In some ways this feedback is transformational but in some ways it probably enables dysfunction and obsession with polls.

6) Crowdsourcing social media and leadership  

I met this interesting young lady who had created three successful start-ups by the age of 26.

She had no previous business experience.

She had no college degree.

In fact, she had never even take a business course.

How did she navigate the world of finance, HR, and marketing to get these companies off the ground? Her social media connections.

“I have friends who work for Google during the day but help me at night,” she said. “Basically I crowd-source all my expert advice.”

American industrialist Andrew Carnegie once said the key to successful leadership was having the courage to surround yourself with people smarter than you.

I think that still holds true but there are exciting new opportunities to accomplish this through the social hive that requires a different type of networking skill.

7) The awkward truth about social proof

Let’s say you were thinking about signing up for an online social media seminar. The content looks similar for two courses you are considering so you look at the gurus behind the content. One guru has 100,000 Twitter followers. The other one has 2,000. Which one do you choose?

The sad and strange truth is that these numbers matter and actually create an image of leadership from nothing. In my book Return On Influence, I tell the story about a former social media leader who admitted to me that he had manufactured his entire social media presence. He bought Twitter followers and Facebook Likes to appear to be powerful. He eventually crumbled under the weight of his charade but for many years he maintained an image of power and popularity when there was nothing underneath.

At least in the short-term, you can fake your way into a position of leadership on the web. Remember when actually you had to earn a position of authority?

Well, that’s enough from me on the subject. Please add your thoughts, additions and comments in the comment section below! How is social media changing the traditional notion of leadership?

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  • Billy Delaney

    “I sense that people are hungry for real leaders to step up and establish a voice of authority, communicate calmly and clearly, and show others how to make sense of this chaotic world.”

    You are right.
    The social online world, is only mirroring this hunger. Leadership comes from a life lived a certain way, and often is thrust upon someone. Often it is never sought. The social scene and its ruleless masses just magnify this lack.

  • Nice comment Billy. Thank you!

  • Todd Lyden

    where do you see this vacuum of leadership? Or more to the point, why do you think folks perceive a lack of leadership or rules? An environment that shuns “traditional leadership?”

    The funny thing to me is how much the saying “nature abhors a vacuum” DOES apply to internet marketing, etc.

    I do love your questioning the role of traditional management training in this environment now. When someone like a Zuckerberg can become a billionaire “leader,” or Andrew Mason of Groupon can be some sort of “thought leader,” it is a different world!

    Your crowdsourced example is the way of the new world. You don’t even need the technical skills to be a “leader” anymore…

    The phony social media expert is an example of how the online rarely matters still in the reality of the necessity to learn REAL networking skills.
    The online tools are great, but they are still just tools that have to be wielded by someone who knows how to use them.

    Great topic for discussion and each point is its own discussion to be had!

  • I have always been drawn to leaders who are an example of their teachings. It’s easy enough to start talking and have people listen to you, but whether people follow you is a different story.

    Eventually people will see the fake you and want to find someone that exhibits the traits you admire.

    “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

    This can be applied to many facets of life. Including leadership.

  • Great commentary Todd. I think your second point addresses the first. The Internet in general despises control, yet there must be leaders. I write about this fascinating enigma extensively in Return On Influence. The “normal” ways of becoming powerful don’t work any more and new models are emerging.

  • Todd Lyden

    Wouldn’t you say there ARE leaders, at least in respect to some of the new environments, particularly internet marketing?
    We do have plenty examples of “thought leaders,” but none fit the old models of how to get there as you suggest.

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  • Well said sir.

  • Yes. I agree. But not because of a title on org chart like the old says. It’s because they can create and spread content.

  • Pauline Baird Jones

    A very thoughtful and interesting post. I have to agree that I see a hunger for good leadership – as opposed to a loud leader. And yes, lots of “burn the leaders.” Jobs was a genius, but you wonder how much better the company could have been if he’d been a good leader, too. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to find good examples and good leaders through out my life.

  • prcoach

    Mark, you make the point very, very well. It’s hard to be a leader without substance in the traditional world and online.

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  • “I’m not sure what concrete accomplishment the rudderless Occupy Wall Street movement can claim in the end. ”

    Please do not underestimate us. It may not be “concrete” but ideas are being spread. The revolution is underway #OWS

  • Hi Mark, you raise some very interesting points here but “leadership” is a very complex subject. The one thought I can totally agree with is that if someone wants to emerge as a leader, they need to learn how to leverage social media (or at least online communication skills) in order to really “make it”. I guess the opposite is also true in that perfecting online communication skills will help those who may emerge as leaders depending on their other skill sets and timing of events.

    The key is for each individual to determine what “make it” means to them. Steve Jobs and your “Crowdsourcing Leadership” examples are uniquely different situations and the timing of both required totally differing leadership (and other) skill sets. It’s unlikely either would have been successful in the others’ role. People can be very effective “leading” certain situations but not others.

    Likewise, the concept of influence and leadership are fundamentally different IMO. The only thing that’s really common is that both are “situational” in their effect and impact.

    Finally, I don’t believe leadership of any given circumstance is permanent. As things change, so does the need for differing leadership styles and capabilities.

  • I wonder if a Jobs-style leader and a “good leader” are mutually exclusive? Interesting point!

  • At least in the long-term. I think you can certainly fool some people in the short-term. Thanks for contributing Jeff.

  • What is the goal of OWS? I’m not being cute. Nobody really knows. Who is its leader? I would submit that you can’t have a revolution without a goal, a leader, and ultimately an organization. Many of the people at OWS could not articulate why they were there or many people had different goals. That is a weird revolution: “Change something.” : )

  • This is one of the few times over many years I would have to disagree with you, or at least I think I do. To be a leader, I do not think you need to have an effective online presence (re: Jobs, Warren Buffet, most company leaders I know). I think to be “known” that is the case but I think you can be a leader without social media.

  • Totally! I was just referring to a “social media” sense. Of course there are incredible leaders who do not pay attention to Social Media or are they involved. What I was trying to suggest is that Social Media has changed the way leaders “lead” when social media is influencing their day to day world. That said, effective use of online communications (versus personally facing) is going to matter to all of them at some point (whether social media based or otherwise).

  • Oh OK. Then we agree. Whew! : )

  • Mark, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking article which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thank you.

    My view is that although social media is a phenomenal tool which I find invaluable for both personal and business purposes it is nonetheless yet another technology ‘false dawn’ that the geeks tell us will supposedly eliminate traditional structures and ways of working.

    I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations here, or risk offending the great folk in the IT community, but suffice it to say that there are manifest perils in communicating with other human beings by computer keyboard. Arguably it isn’t communication at all, not in the true sense. At best it is a distorted, one-sided communication that speaks only to a tiny portion of other people’s brains. I’m sure everyone reading this has had unhappy experience(s) when things they’ve written via computer keyboard have caused misunderstanding and pain, for themselves and for others. Not all such misunderstandings are resolved as amicably as that between you and Steve Dodd below!

    The danger inherent in digitial communication is its inability to capture human emotion fully, in all its complexities and irrationalities. Emotion makes the computer keyboard a perilously blunt instrument.

    So we should be very wary of the Steve Jobs of this world, and others perhaps less extreme and powerful who try to convince us, that they have our future in their hands!

    That brings me to the vexed and, as Steve Dodd says, complex issue of leadership. No lengthy treatise here, but in a nutshell leaders are like orchestral conductors. Every move they make, every subtletly and nuance, communicates in different ways to the different parts of the orchestra. The rapport between the conductor and the orchestra is built up over hundreds of hours of practice and performance, trial and error. What’s more there are hidden leaders in each section of the orchestra, and soloists who lead at different points in the performance.

    Human civilisation has evolved over thousands of years through both natural and conscious selection. It does not, and cannot change overnight, and it is still in its infancy, as long as we do not destroy ourselves or the planet that cradles us. The principles of effective and inspirational human communication are timeless – they transcend any technology, but that technology must find ways to embed them if it is to survive and prosper long term.

  • Josh St. Aubin

    You make some great points here Mark, but I think the reason leadership works both online as well as offline is that we choose the leaders we follow, not the other way around.

    There may not be anyone “in charge” online, but we seem to find the people that most resonate with us and break off into smaller tribes. It wouldn’t work if we had one leader for the entire internet, but when we center around our beliefs, passions and values, we tend to create strong bonds even with people we’ve never met. In essence, they make us feel safe because we share commonalities.

    Steve Jobs was successful because he surrounded himself with people that bought into him and his views. His authority may have bought him some leverage within the company, but his leadership is what gravitated people towards working directly with him. He alienated some of the most amazing talents that didn’t mesh with his personality, but he lead teams that achieved much more than anyone could have imagined. They didn’t work for the “king”, they worked for his beliefs and they followed him because they wanted to.

  • Let me challenge you with something here. We have an entire generation — The Milienials — who are digital natives living their lives “through a keyboard.” For better or worse, they maintain relationships, make important connections and settle conflist over text messages and posts. This is the way it is. There is no going back,

    This is a generation that will bring these new skills to the workplace too. By 2020, they will make up half of our customers, half of our employees and we will not be able to impose a classic view of communication on them. In fact, we will lose them as customers and employees if we try to do so.

    The irony is, the young people who can navigate this world most skilfully will lead it. We can’t see the way they communicate as an obstacle to leadership and effective communication but as a new and necessry skillset, whether we like it, or understand it, or not. Two generations ago, business people struggld with the telephone in the same way — how will my cusotomers understand me if they can’t see me eye to eye? My boss resisted email when it came out. Both are universal methods of communication now. Same with social media today.

  • This is somewhat true. “Authority” is a legitimate source of leadership in the offline world. If I am the president, your boss, or the mayor of your town, I am a leader whether you buy in or not.The same would be true if I controlled scarce resources you depended on.

    As I write in Return On Influence, these factors are less true, perhaps untrue, online. Nobody cares what your job title is.

    So how do we know whether to follow somebody online? It is through their content and their ability to spread it, which is unique to our time and unique to the Internet. This is the primary premise of the book.Thanks for your comment!

  • I agree totally Mark. Your points are very well made. Incidentally one of the hats I wear is as Business Development Manager for a social media company, so I’m hardly in the Luddite camp here!!

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter what the medium, or what the technology, those who will ultimately succeed over the long haul will be those who underestand human nature best, and who succeed in inspiring others. I realise this is a value statement – there will be people out there totally content to do business using the available technology, without any underlying emotional or spiritual content. But that goes against the grain of the way the human animal has evolved. We are social creatures, in need of higher order purposes and content in our lives. Social media works best to the extent that it facilitates connections between people.

    As my colleague Steve Phillip, who leads the social media company I work with, put it to a client group last Friday, social media acts like the bulk of the football (soccer) team. Its job is to get the ball downfield and into the 6 yard area as often as possible. But then you need the striker, the person who puts the ball in the back of the net. What I’m saying is that the striker is the person, with all of their faculties and attributes. Great leaders understand intuitively how to appeal to other people. Social media cannot create that ability, but they can facilitate it.

  • Josh St. Aubin

    I’ve worked for plenty of authorities or managers that take
    on the leadership title, but never inspire anyone to follow. The hierarchy may dictate that you listen, but at the first sign of difficulty, everyone jumps ship. I think leadership is a state of mind, not a state of being. Great leaders inspire others not because others have to follow, but because they want to listen and follow.

    You’re right, social has been able to break down these
    barriers to where titles have less influence and leaders of all stature are able to step up and lead whether by example, through content or by building trust. Regardless of platform, online or off, leaders will always find a way to lead.

  • Agree. The leaders will rise!

  • Pauline Baird Jones

    You do have to wonder what the take away lessons will be from Jobs. I mean, he was brilliant and he “lead” Apple to success. No question. I love my iThings. But will the end lesson be: you have to be a jerk to be brilliant and succeed? i.e. nice guys finish last? How much more powerful would his legacy be if it were both brilliant and kind?

    As an author, I’d have to say, the publishing business can be pretty brutal. Authors have to be tough enough to take rejection, bad reviews, etc. I worked with one editor who never once had a kind thing to say about my work. I can remember when I reached my done point, I went back through our communications and nope, not even an “I like this book” when she offered the contract.

    I guess I can be thankful for that editor, because had she been slightly nice, I might still be writing for them. LOL I still have to work at balancing the toughness needed to run a business with the openess I need to be creative. (I’ll let you know if I ever find the perfect solution. LOL)

    And I’ll add (finish), this brave new world is what made it possible for me to do what I do w/o having to work with people like that editor.

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  • Leslie L Denning

    Hi Mark. I enjoyed this article very much. The comments are interesting, as well.

    I’m probably showing my age, but I think one of the problems of leadership today is the old adage, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Absolutely everyone has an opinion and are clamoring to express it on social media.

    Sometimes I feel like the movie, “Ground Hog Day”. In the late sixties and in the ’70’s, I went through the give-peace-a-chance, give-socialism-a-chance, we’ve-got-to-save-the-world-from-disaster movements, and I think, “Do I have to live this all over again when it didn’t work the first time?”

    I think you are right that people crave leadership, but at the same time, many are saying there should be no rules at all. The conundrum in resolving the two will be ongoing now that everyone with a cell phone has access to social media.

    As to #OWS, pardon me while I laugh.

    All the best,

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