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The explosive emergence of social media during the past decade has fundamentally altered how we read, how we navigate, and where we buy. It has also profoundly altered how leaders can lead, and now is the time for all those who carry responsibility for others to embrace it or be displaced by it.
Company leadership is probably more essential than ever. Academic research reveals that it has the greatest impact on an enterprise when the firm faces an uncertain and changing market –and those conditions are now more prevalent than in the past for many firms that are facing shifting regulators, tougher competitors, and faster technologies. It is thus all the more vital to get the leadership formula right now since it is all the more likely to be impactful in the years ahead.
In my courses on leadership at the Wharton School I am often asked what’s new for getting the formula right. Much is not: strategic thinking, persuasive communication, and decisive decision making are as important as ever. But some is new: managing abroad, leading from below, and - social media.
Mastery of the latter, in my experience, brings distinctive leadership advantages similar to what Roland Deiser and Sylvain Newton have referenced as “Organizational Social Media Literacy”[i] I would single out three of the “six skills” from a recent study that we completed on Chile’s national leadership in the wake of an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the world’s sixth largest earthquake since 1950. The massive seismic event tilted the Earth three inches, moved Chile eight inches west, and destroyed the equivalent of 18 percent of the country’s GDP. Recovery would be expensive, and it would require exceptional national leadership.[ii]
1.Leveraging Grass-roots information: Leaders can’t act with nuance and precision without detailed information on employees and customers, and everything from Twitter to crowdsourcing can be invaluable here. Consider by way of just one example those responsible for emergency response to disasters: they must react as quickly and accurately as possible when trouble erupts. The U.S. Geological Service is now using Twitter to detect earthquakes in populated regions more quickly than through its traditional instruments: tweets report earthquake occurrences within seconds, while seismic alerts can take minutes, and the latter may be too long to notify coastal dwellers about resulting tsunamis. In readying the country for the next “big one” – the most severe earthquake ever recorded, a 9.5 event, had hit Chile in 1960 – the government has now invested much in Internet-enabled rapid notification. [this relates to the listening/filtering skills – dimension #3)
2. Decentralized solutions: In the wake of an earthquake or other natural disaster, thousands need help and thousands can provide help, but traditionally neither side could optimally find one another. With no water, food or shelter in many areas after Chile was hit, one agency simply began to post information on the web about who needed what where and then let those who had “what” deliver it where it was most needed at the providers’ own initiative. [this relates to an enabling infrastructure – dimension #5)
3. Transparent commitments: In business, customers, employees, and investors all want and deserve timely information on what top management is promising and whether it is delivering. To this end, Chile’s president Sebastián Piñera established a unit to track and chronicle his administration’s progress in restoring the nation after the 8.8 earthquake. “We want to be held accountable,” he explained, “and I want to be measured not by intention but by results.” He regularly made results available to the public by requiring his ministers to openly describe and report on a government website not only what each had accomplished in the past six months, but also what they had failed to accomplish and what they promised to accomplish in the next six months. The objective was to ensure that everybody could become aware of all of the ministries’ plans and results so that both officials and the public could accurately judge and hold the nation’s leadership accountable for recovery. [this relates to producing skills - dimension #1]
Through tangible experience, we’re all helping create the tangible ways that social media can make leadership more effective. Now is a good time to adapt what has already been invented and to invent what still more is required. Leadership will never be the same without it.
This section is dedicated to contributions and comments that deal with more than one of the six skills.
It contains also other ideas and experiences related to the impact of social media on large organizations