How Social Media is Changing Leadership

It is hardly breaking news to suggest that social media has changed the marketing landscape. We can no longer rely exclusively on broadcasting our message. We need to listen and build community and share things of value. We get it.

The True Power of Social Media

But the true power of social media goes way beyond marketing. Social media is more than just a collection of tools for connecting, sharing and learning. Social media actually represents a significant shift in the balance of power—away from institutions and towards individuals. Social media gives all of us—those who Clay Shirky refer to as “the people formerly known as the audience”—the power to create, share, learn, collaborate, and solve problems, without relying as much on third-party institutions to help us get it done.

This is really powerful, because that is what human beings are wired to do. We love creating, sharing, learning, and solving problems, and we are deeply attracted to opportunities to do so. That’s why there are a billion people on Facebook, even though the content is fairly inane.

A New Approach

But our organizations don’t seem to be keeping up with this human revolution. Our approach to leadership and management is still firmly rooted in a mechanical model, where the top controls and make decisions, and then everyone else is supposed to follow the chain of command, like “cogs in a machine.” This approach has served us fairly well over the past 100 years, but in today’s social world, employees are already starting to demand a new approach.

Drawing from our book, Humanize, Maddie Grant and I surveyed 500 professionals late last year on issues related to social leadership (you can download the full report here). The respondents came from organizations that were definitely on the leading edge of social media adoption. A full 84% of them believed that having leaders involved in social media gave their company a competitive advantage. And when it came to what makes a good leader, their perspective revealed an important shift.

Traditional vs. Social Leadership Traits

In the survey, we provided a list of twelve leadership traits, asking people to pick out their top four. The list included six traits that were representative of the traditional “command and control” style of leadership (things like “holds people accountable”, “brilliant strategist”, “leverages best practices”), and the other six were representative of the principles we identify in Humanize, that come from the social media revolution (“transparent”, “embraces change”, “values experimentation”, “open to diverse perspectives”).

Four of the top five traits identified (all of which were identified by more than 50% of respondents) came from the Humanize list. This encapsulates the resistance we’ve noticed in organizations implementing social media. Social media is now going beyond just disrupting the way we do marketing. It’s starting to disrupt our leadership and management. Our employees are expecting more transparency, more change, more experimentation, and more clarity. Whether or not leaders tweet and post on Facebook is ultimately not the issue. What will matter more over the long term is our leaders’ involvement and understanding of the deeper changes that are happening to our organizational cultures and processes.

So if you have taken the plunge into social media in your organization, make sure you pay attention to the ripples and undercurrents that might emerge related to your culture and operations. The more proactive you can be in shifting your leadership and management practices to become more open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous, the more effective you’ll be in the shift to social media. It’s not just your marketing tactics that you need to bring into the 21st century–it’s your culture.