In a very recent blog post on Business 2 Community Charlene Li was asked why people don't use corporate social networks. Her first reason is because executives don't engage themselves, possibly, she says, "because it will make them look like less of a leader if they get close to people". However these type of executives are on a very short fuse, as even once-reluctant celebrities have come around to embracing social even if it erodes the mystique.
Can you lead from behind?
We're glad that Charlene thinks executive engagement is a key, because we've also found that to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of enterprise social network success. In fact we rank it number one in our own list (see all the list below). It's important to note that we are not saying "commitment" as we used to say for major enterprise IT projects in the past, we are saying engagement. We are moving from "we have to get executive commitment to this project" to "we have to get executive engagement and participation in this project".
We might also ponder what Charlene said from a different perspective - one which asks "what is the very nature of leadership?".
From this perspective you would have no doubt already cringed at the idea that someone could consider themselves a leader without mixing and being close to their people. A perhaps extreme example of the difference was in World War 2 where characteristically British generals were armchair generals with the right family pedigree who would blithely send thousands of men to their deaths before lunch at the club, whereas the US generals characteristically worked near the front line with their men and felt the impact of the assaults. The question is who should be best considered leaders, and who were more keen on protecting a sense of separation between themselves and their men?
"A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them."-- M. D. Arnold
If celebs can shed the mystique CEOs can too
Recently Olivia Wilde gave a very interesting interview explaining how celebrities once saw social media as "representative of defeat" since it would "ruin all sense of separation between people and celebrities". She notes how things have now changed
... stars who use social media to promote causes are widely lauded, a change that Wilde pegs to broader societal indulgence of a life online. "It used to be very separated, and there was this sense of maintaining the illusion, and that an actor had to be anonymous so people would believe you in character. But I think the nature of society has changed and it's happened for everyone, not just celebrities. People share more, and people expect to be shared with. There's just a sense of acceptance of a more complex and dynamic life, a more varied personality", she says.
Importantly, this change in society is obviously what people bring to work, and shapes the future of work. This means that executives who are not actively engaging and sharing are making a decision to place themselves outside their employees' world and out of touch with how society is changing. And because there is an obvious link between culture and leaders, and the maintenance of a culture and the behaviour of leaders, then leaders who refuse to engage are stamping their corporate culture with that trait.
Charlene goes on to say that for non-engaging executives "the challenge is that these networks are bidirectional. People can talk back to you. They feel very empowered to talk back and ask and challenge. Many leaders don't feel comfortable with that level of engagement".
Is it not stretching all boundaries of imagination and credibility to think such executives, who will not engage with their people, could be called leaders?
Time for executives to shed the mystique
So let's call a spade a spade and let's call executives who resist engaging in social - both corporately and in social media - not leaders but laggards.
How could we help them "shed the mystique"? Well perhaps by gently demonstrating that they have none, and that the gap is increasing between them and the real leaders and influencers within the organisation. And in fact Charlene quotes David Thodey ex-CEO Telstra as leading the way by actively referring people to discussions on the corporate social network.
Richard Branson is a real business leader, and he embraces mixing with his staff and engaging in social at scale.
Lady Gaga is a real celebrity leader, and she embraces mixing with her fans and engaging in social at scale.
Lady Gaga and Richard Branson are examples executives can embrace, and perhaps need to embrace, in order to retain the right to be called a leader.