The Social Leader

Welcome to the Social Age. An age of globally connected networks where continuous disruption is the norm; where information is increasingly produced and consumed through social media; and where agility replaces every other parameter of success.

Two momentous events define the Social Age: one, Google will be 16 this year, taking it another step closer to adulthood. So someone going on 16 today will have spent an entire life in the post-google world, with no idea of a time where information was not instantly available. Two, the Encyclopedia Britannica – the hallowed repository of knowledge – ceased publication last year. Not since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1899 has anything so momentous happened. The impact of the Social Age on our organizations and societies is going to be massive.

Most of the leadership theories that continue to be around today pre-date the Social Age and the information age that preceded it. Many of these theories are largely based on the image of the leader as a general leading “his” troops in a planned, predictable world where instructions are obeyed and strategy is king. Taking command, to control, to get the troops behind you, to watch out for the snipers, to provide air cover: we continue to hurl around these tired phrases in our 21st century organizations. The Social Age bears no resemblance to the one in which the military context took root. That was a linear world in which linear solutions that worked. In a complex world of multiple, convergent causes and unforeseeable discontinuities, leaders have to learn to think and respond differently.

So, what are the challenges specific to the Social Age? For one, our organizations are being driven to act more like communities than hierarchies. It is no longer what we know that counts, but how we build significance out of what we know. Everyone has a role to play in that; the leader’s work is to find ways that makes it happen. Secondly, our organizations are under scrutiny from employees, stakeholders and customers who possess three unprecedented resources: ubiquitous access to social information; an expectation that they can engage anyone and everyone in conversation and shape the point of view of the community; availability of cheap and fast communication that allows them to react to events in real time. In reality, the “general” has very little control left.

So, competitive advantage is rapidly shifting to the generation of social relevance in an open system of global networks whose actions, decisions and interactions are beyond any management team’s jurisdiction and control. From a leadership point of view, this poses a challenge to the static and insular world-view that has shaped our very organizational form, our routines and behaviors at work and our interactions with the external world. In the Social Age, these are largely becoming irrelevant.

All in all, these factors have created five leadership challenges that are unique to the Social Age:

Anticipating Discontinuity

Although discontinuity is not new, it occurred in rare and dramatic ways but it is fast becoming the norm – from mobile apps transforming the cell phone, to streaming video destroying the video rental market to big data mining of search engine terms remaking epidemiology. The ability to pick up weak signals that could be emerging from an adjacent technological or industry space, and finding ways of responding to them speedily is fast becoming a leadership challenge of huge importance.

Proactively influencing the world around you

No longer is it possible for a leader to focus on just the team of the organization. Leaders today are expected to influence a wide range of constituencies, sometimes two or three steps removed from their official range of responsibility. These relationships are often devoid of authority or loyalty factors thereby making them complex and it requires leaders to use new emotional and social channels that are more in tune with the Social Age.

Authentically relating to others

Organizations in the Social Age are driven by transparency and it is no longer possible for a leader to have an inauthentic “game face” that is shown to the world. The demand for authenticity has never been higher as workplaces become increasingly flattened out and transparent, and a new generation of “digital natives” and the early converts to the Social Age start exercising their demands for transparency.

Taking in new information and adjusting perspectives

The speed of change and the rapid propagation of information means that the leader must be able to operate using multiple perspectives and feel comfortable with ambiguity. The ability to make adjustments and remain adaptive, being able to work with contradictions, and to do all this without compromising on their credibility has become an essential aspect of leadership in the Social Age.

Scaling communications for different audiences

The inhabitants in the Social Age carry a megaphone and live life out loud. Speaking to the entire organization was once the purview of senior leaders. Thanks to social media, everyone who cares about a company can speak to everyone else who cares – inside and outside. In this new reality a leader must be able to pitch communications in a way that they are appropriate for an individual, a group and the world all at once.

In short, there is no place for leaders to hide anymore. The future is already here.

(From my forthcoming book, “The Social Leader; Redefining Leadership for the Complex Social Age”, with Frank Guglielmo, published by Bibliomotion New York, 2014