The Social Age Needs Real, Human Leadership

James Griffin, a director of global professional services firm KPMG, and a specialist in social media, says the most common excuse from Australian CEOs for not being on Twitter or becoming an influencer on LinkedIn is they see it as being narcissistic.

In an interview with the Australian Financial Review Griffin said: “They don’t want to put themselves forward as they fear it will look as though it is all about their own vanity,” 

Countering tall poppy syndrome may be an honest concern. 

A more honest concern is that CEOs don’t want to be seen putting a foot wrong — remember, the primary thing most senior leadership ultimately fears is incompetence.

“Most leaders feel they have to be perfect. The last thing I think people want from their leaders is perfection. What they want to know is that there’s empathy, that you understand, that you’re also vulnerable and are open to mistakes, and you need people to be there with you, again, in common cause to achieve a common goal,” says Charlene Li, founder and CEO, Altimeter Group.

Are we redistributing power away from the business?

Business used to hold all of the cards. It lived by the mantra: “we make it. You take it.” That has all changed. The internet has given us choice. Social media has given us a voice.

As consumers we’ve always held opinions. We’ve shared those opinions with friends and family in the bar or coffee shop; at work or at home.

Social media allows us to share those opinions with like-minded people whatever their location. And when our opinions chime with others our opinions spread.

The internet and its social web redistributes power and influence. It’s a digital democracy. It’s leveled off.

Should we be thinking about trust through vulnerability?

Robert Phillips — in his book Trust Me PR is Dead — talks of reciprocal vulnerability: making accountability mutual. Where firms are as “exposed – and therefore vulnerable – to their employees and customers as their employees and customers have traditionally been to them.”

Vulnerability does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be human.

The hierarchical command-and-control world of work is finally giving way to the flatter, networked corporation.

Leadership is increasingly defined by communication and facilitation. Workers co-create, self-organize and problem solve.

Business is slowly becoming human again.

Ours is an age marked by uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. To cope with, and make sense of, this world requires us to take our well-practiced professional distance and cool that served us so well in the industrial age and to replace it with acknowledging risks and matching them with emotional exposure.

In short: the management trends of the last 50-100 years focused on expertise and execution. Now we need to be focusing on empathy.

Don’t Put Up Walls. Chase Real Connections.

Research by Paula Niedenthal [document opens as a PDF], reported in the Harvard Business Review, shows that while we may try to appear perfect, strong or intelligent in order to be respected by others, pretense often has the opposite effect intended.

We can all recall uncomfortable times in meetings when someone at the table puts on a show for the boss – behaving ‘inauthentically’ in today’s ubiquitous parlance.

We can smell the BS and we don’t like the whiff. Not only do their actions appear fake but we come away feeling just a little less connected with them post meeting.

On the flip side we feel more comfortable around someone who is open, honest and human. This engenders trustworthiness.

The goal is to be a ‘flawesome’ leader

The idea of a leader showing his/her human side is very close to the branding concept of being flawsome.

Consumers don’t expect brands to be flawless. Consumers actually want their brands to be human. That means having good days and bad days.

In fact, as long as you’re honest and open about your flaws we’ll even think your flaws can be awesome. Today, as consumers, we’re interested in brands and their leaders that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, and humour.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, the authors of Strategic Public Relations Leadership describe flawesome brands as “Those that have flaws, but are still awesome, just like human beings”.

The authors make the point that “brands and organizations with personality are attractive and if they have the humility to admit they get things wrong, the public can be forgiving.”

For leaders in the social age authenticity is key. That requires being transparent in everything you do, including admitting when you’re wrong.

Handled well, there’s a positive to being wrong. Peter Aceto, CEO, Tangerine Bank (formerly ING Direct) argues:

“Fixing a perceived misstep actually has its upside, where making no missteps does not.”

Today’s networked businesses realize they can achieve more through co-creation, co-operation and co-operation than through command-and-control ordering of subordinates what to do. This requires some give as well as take. And, having the strength to show a little vulnerability.

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