Monday, October 7, 2013

Social Media Lessons from Leadership Experts

“The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak," said Alec J. Ross , one of 17 speakers at the World Business Forum in NYC this week.  I was given the opportunity to attend, together with nine faculty from across Humber College, to learn how we can better prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century.

Ross made the point that the overabundance of available data in the world and the shift from hierarchies to individuals and networks of individuals means that power is more distributed.  The bottom line is that it is harder to gain control, politically, economically, and socially, either as individuals or as corporations. 
Helping us understand the characteristics of great leadership in these chaotic times was the focus for the majority of the speakers.  As a public relations professor teaching social media,  I found that many of these same characteristics apply to successful social media management. 

1.  Building relationships

  • Jack Welch, introduced at the WBF as “the greatest businessman in the history of American business," reflected on the current shut down of the U.S. federal government, suggesting that “both sides, Obama and congress, need to build relationships."  Carlos Brito, CEO of Anheuser-Busch InBev, said that “(leadership) is all about people,” and Ben Zander, music conductor and director, pointed out that "a conductor doesn’t make a sound, but instead depends for power on his ability to make other people powerful."
  • Social media is also all about relationships.  The authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto state that “markets are conversations, and that conversations are conducted among human beings…in a human voice.”

2.  Generosity

  • Welch suggested that “great leaders have the generosity gene”, and Brito stressed the need to be unselfish and “think of the company as something bigger than yourself.”
  • Social media is also about giving.  Tara Hunt, a social media expert we discuss in class, refers to the “whuffie factor” or social capital as something that you exchange when you engage with others through social media.  The point is to always give more than you take.

 3.  Humility and Listening

  • Brito said that it’s important to dream big but stay humble by gaining inspiration from those who do better than you.  And Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and son and brother of former U.S. presidents, associated being humble with having strong listening skills. Nancy Koehn, historian at the Harvard Business School, concurred that listening carefully was important, and that one must “gather information from a wide range of sources, turning it into knowledge, then understanding and finally wisdom.” 

 4.  Forbearance

  • Koehn advised that leaders employ forbearance, suggesting that they “don’t necessarily want to react immediately.  In times of turbulence, it’s sometimes wiser to wait.”

  • No doubt an appropriate word for a Harvard historian, I can’t say "forbearance" has been bandied about among social media gurus.  But the concept certainly has.  The idea of sometimes waiting before reacting to a negative online situation has been labeled “the Streisand effect.”  Some situations resolve themselves by disappearing into the ether and you cause more fuss by drawing attention to them.

What these illustrious speakers taught me was that global connectedness has led to turbulent times, and that great leadership in such times means putting people first.  I’d like to suggest to my students that this is an equally valid guideline for navigating online connectedness and reinforces our understanding of how to, as Hunt says,  "embrace the chaos." 

What other characteristics might individuals and companies be mindful of when communicating in a space where control is not an option?

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