Stop pointing the social media finger at leaders

I have written a lot about senior executives being slow to adopt social technologies but what surprises me more is a lack of know-how across many heads of function who should be positioning it within the organisation.

Many senior managers are not up to date with game-changing developments that could derail their companies or bringing the right research to the table to influence strategy.

Yet I am repeatedly asked how they can persuade decision-makers up the chain seen as ‘blockers’, without thinking about their role in creating change.

Surely the first step must be to have your own house in order?

I am not suggesting that power is equally distributed across companies or that leaders have fully grasped the impact of digital and social change. We are a long way from that.

But gone are the days in which leadership was seen as the province of one great wo/man.

In most modern companies inclusive models of leadership are in place and employees expect to influence decision-making. Reports like Productivity Pulse suggest the ability to do so has a direct and positive impact on engagement and productivity.

And that influence is set to grow if economists like Jeremy Rifkin are right.

In his book The third industrial revolution: how lateral power is transforming energy, the economy, and the world Rifkin says technology and the growth of global networks will drive even greater openness.

The emergence of peer-to-peer business practices and cross-sector networks Rifkin believes is disrupting power not just within company walls but also across every level of society.

Writer Robert Safian goes further suggesting that the future of modern business is ‘chaos’ and that the global adoption of social, mobile and other new technologies means the pace of change is so fast that it’s impossible to predict the future.

Safian says leaders are struggling with core questions like what skills matter most or how to weigh up risks and opportunities when the fundamentals of business can change overnight.

In such deep uncertainty leaders do not need new tools but a new mindset that can deal with disruption and adapt to change, fast.

There’s a lot to this I believe.

Yet what is strikingly absent from my point of view is the impact this has (and must have) on the need for increased responsibility in individuals within the organization itself.

Here I am not talking about leaders, but in the absence of traditional structures, the ubiquitously empowered.

‘With great power comes great responsibility’, said Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, apply this at every level of the chain.

For all the tomes on what it takes to be a good leader in today’s world there is comparatively little written on the mindset of what makes a good employee.

Surely it includes the same qualities of responsiveness and responsibility? If not to the same extent, given the differences in influence, then at least to some degree?

For one thing, the leader-follower distinction will become increasingly blurred as multi-careerism becomes the norm and at many points in our careers we will be (and already are) both at the same time.

In ‘Leadership in the Time of Liminality’ (or high uncertainty) David Holzmer says that ‘adaptive’ is not a one trick pony but requires us to both embody and reject rules, depending on the situation.

He says companies will need to see solutions as requiring collective action and that the ‘unfettered creativity now called is only found by exploring what is emerging and unknown—within our organizations and within ourselves.’

Clearly developing this kind of mindset is not something that comes off the back of a promotion.

This is the kind of behavior that we need to cultivate day-to-day.

And yet how many of us honestly do this?

Many of us are prepared to demand of our leaders what we are not prepared to ask of ourselves.

A senior executive in a large company recently confessed to me that she lost one of her best people after pulling them up on a potentially damaging strategy decision, their first argument in a working relationship of many years.

The manager left shortly after, ironically citing the boss’ refusal to tolerate difference at the exit interview.

This kind of behavior sends the wrong message, that you expect a leader to be perfect (impossible for anyone).

Worse, it substitutes the potential for developing true resilience or growth through disagreement with the dummy-spit.

We must be prepared to cultivate open-mindedness if we demand it and know what is happening, even if others don’t want to hear what we know.

The only way to tell if a culture is truly impermeable to ideas is if we present them in a credible way, persist past rejection and continue to press our influence without being overbearing. Timing is critical when it comes to new ideas.

Despite the real differences in power conferred by position (the legal obligations for example of a Board Director) we have responsibility at every stage of our career to embody the mindset we wish to work within.

In saying this I am not absolving leaders of their responsibility for setting the tone or managing difficulty.

I am saying that before we point the finger upwards we take a look at what else we can do, from where we are, to be what we want others to be.

Then we can point the finger upwards.

This article first appeared in: Leading Company

Dionne Kasian-Lew is the author of The Social Executive – how to master social media and why it’s good for business (Wiley). Connect with her here on LinkedIn, Twitter @dionnelew, email thesocialexecutive@gmail.com.

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