It's time to reinvent management. You can help.

Empowering Natural Leaders in ‘Facebook Generation’ Ways

by Gary Hamel on September 28, 2010


gary-hamel's picture

Empowering Natural Leaders in ‘Facebook Generation’ Ways

In the years ahead, any leader who hopes to have followers will need to carefully examine the foundations of their own authority. Why? Because we live in a world where the effectiveness of positional power is rapidly diminishing—at least outside of prisons and elementary schools.

Thanks to Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, FEMA, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Fannie Mae, et al, the generation now joining the workforce has an extraordinarily jaundiced view of authority. They are deeply (and often rightly) suspicious of large organizations and those who run them. In their view, it’s not titles and credentials that make a leader worth following, but mission, self-sacrifice and world-class competence. Another worrying trend for centralization-minded leaders—an accelerating pace of change that penalizes organizations with lumbering top-down decision-making structures.

While the Facebook Generation must still contend with trickle-down power structures at work and in school, they have experienced a ubiquitous and powerful alternative: The Internet. The Internet is flat, open and meretricious. Nevertheless, there are thousands of natural hierarchies online. Pick any subject, search the blogosphere, and you’ll uncover a hierarchy of influence—some blogs receive higher authority scores than others. Visit any online discussion group and you’ll find that a few frequent contributors have been ranked more highly than the rest. Or click the “most viewed” tab on a website that features user-generated content, and you’ll quickly discover who’s been blessed with creative genius and who hasn’t. While the barometer of respect may differ from site to site, the rankings are nearly always peer-based. Online, you have millions of critics but you don’t have a boss.

Online hierarchies are inherently dynamic. The moment someone stops adding value to the community, his influence starts to wane. Power is always on the move, always flowing—towards those who are making a difference and away from those who aren’t.

By contrast, a fixed chain of command may be efficient, but it can have some nasty side-effects. [See my post on The Hidden Cost of Overbearing Bosses.] Top-down authority structures turn employees into bootlickers, breed pointless struggles for political advantage, and discourage dissent. Their inherent inflexibility can also lead to persistent misalignments between positional power and genuine leadership ability—lags that can ultimately destroy a great organization. Review the troubled history of any chronically struggling company—like Chrysler, Sony or Motorola—and you’ll find a management model that concentrated too much power in the hands of deadwood executives, and awarded too little power to the natural leaders who might have had the energy and vision to set the company on a new course.

But there’s no reason your organization has to follow suit. Natural leaders today have the means to challenge ossified and change-resistant power structures. Thanks to the reach of the Web, a lowly but brilliantly effective leader can mobilize followers across a global organization and beyond—by writing an influential blog, by using that notoriety to get a platform at industry events, by hosting a Web-based discussion on a hot topic, by building an online coalition of similarly-minded individuals, by disseminating a provocative position paper to hundreds or thousands of fellow employees, and by using email to ensure that supporters show up at key meetings. The same technology that allowed Barack Obama to challenge the old guard in the Democratic party can help natural leaders in your organization outflank the bunglers and the obstructionists.

So, readers, here’s my question: What’s your advice to natural leaders who feel stymied by the formal hierarchy? How can they use the new social technologies of the Web to extend their influence and accelerate the pace of change?

You need to register in order to submit a comment.

paola-de-vecchi-galbiati's picture
What’s your advice to natural leaders who feel stymied by the formal hierarchy? How can they use the new social technologies of the Web to extend their influence and accelerate the pace of change?

If i could advice to a natural leader how to overcome the formal hierarchy, I would say:

- Do not consider the leadership as a value: the leadership concept means that the leader is raised above the others. you need to ask for 'what' you are: an infinitesimal element in a complex world.

- To aim very high: If the idea is valid, if the proposal is interesting, modern technologies allow us to contact anyone. Intellectuals, managers, artists, artisans, investors, skipping unnecessary intermediate levels, often occupied by bureaucrats ... 

- Never feeling sole and exclusive owner of an idea. collaboration and cooperation  ensure to do effective actions and to expand our world view.

Paola De Vecchi Galbiati
madhusudan-rao's picture
Agree with your comments, Gary.

But it is definitely difficult if not impossible for the effective leader to mobilize support across the social networking tools prevalent today. Compare the other contributors in the MIX itself to someone like you - how would we be able to get so many followers on our blog? How many of our blog-posts get read, as compared to the ones you write? Our blog will not get any push from the administrators that is required to get more eye-balls on our posts. Very difficult, right?

There is still a need for a framework where bright leaders can use it to their advantage and leverage it for their individual growth.

rl-lafrance's picture

Gary, my thoughts:

Leadership has internal and external dimensions.  Internally, it encompasses leading your team, meeting and exceeding goals, and showing management the hard and soft successes of your program.  Externally, leadership is built through recognition of your role within your company, the level of industry contacts you develop and your success in gaining recognition as an industry expert and thought leader.  Good internal and external leadership efforts complement each other.

Social technologies are one of several channels that, taken together, influence change.  On its own, social technology or any other single channel is unlikely to generate the change you desire within your company.  I believe that social technology must be viewed as one part of an overall effort to lead management into the future.

Internally, social technology can be used to create a free flow of communication among team members breaking down functional and geographic barriers.  This communication should entail a cross-fertilization of work ideas as well as an acceptable level of social chitchat to foster work friendships and comradery.  The goal of using this and other channels is to help your team achieve success and to achieve it in a dynamic and positive work environment that can be recognized throughout the company.

Externally, social media must work for the leader, the team and the company.  Individual boundaries must be understood so each team member is comfortable in their use of external facing communication channels (social media as well as verbal and written communication.)  While we are moving away from a command and control organization structure, team members must understand the limits on the information they can posit externally and recognize that these limits may differ by individual.  Just as the team leader may be building an external constituency, the leader should also be working with each team member on their individual development programs which, for many, may include an external component.

A word of caution, though.  In today’s world external information can spread so fast and can be so devastating that individual boundaries and responsibilities must be clear both in the work environment and in each team member’s personal environment as they relate to discussing work details.

Leadership in creating corporate change requires a multivariate approach.  Success should be achieved by delivering on corporate objectives, by developing a team environment that is recognized as superior and by building a level of external influence that one’s company cannot overlook. 


dan-oestreich's picture
Gary, you rightly point out that the net can enhance opportunities for natural leaders to exert influence, but the culture of the net includes a substantial amount of competition. (This includes by the way the culture of the MIX site itself, as I'm sure you've noticed.  I mean, Good Lord, will a contest to find ways to increase trust result in increased trust among the contestants or anyone else?  And is it the best way to get ideas on the table?  Is there an any alternative?)
As you say, "Online, you have millions of critics but you don’t have a boss," and there are "hierarchies of influence." The fundamental competition underlying these hierarchies of influence isn't necessarily any better than a stifling bureaucracy; it's just laterally rather than vertically expressed, informal rather than formal.  To me, the real challenge is one of collaboration; how to bring the ideas together, how to find a place for differing views, how to generate synergies that break down barriers rather than bashing your way to the top as an individual, whether that's through sucking up, politics, and conformity -- or through being a clever debater on the net. So my advice to natural leaders is to look long and hard at how the prevalent forms of competition undermine trust, regard, community and freedom, no matter how and where these forms are expressed, whether in a traditional bureaucracy of positional control or the new bureaucracy of lateral influence.  
I would encourage any natural leader to look long and hard at these competing systems and the competitive culture within each, and then I'd add, "think for yourself."
And having said that, I would also encourage the person to help find ways through their leadership to bring a more collaborative spirit forward, honoring the very real possibility that the world isn't going to be saved simply by the most powerful individuals or their best ideas but by the power and the ideas that we have found together.  And I might share my own credo, summarized by the first verse of William Stafford beautiful poem, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other:"
If you don't know the kind of person I am 
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
mark-vandeneijnde's picture
Beautiful comment. Thank you for pointing out the real challenge for natural leaders: harnessing the unique talents of the people around them and creating the conditions for this potential to come alive. Being the stewards for new realities
ellen-weber's picture

Thanks Gary for asking the question about solutions for natural leaders hindered by systems, as found in social media. This question, and thoughtful discussion helps us to  imagine ground-breaking results for workplace solutions where pioneers get supported. Where no support comes, social media offers a window into change.

Original thinkers tend to spot those daily opportunities to ask mind-bending what if questions, and even a twitter can generate innovative responses. Bloggers can offer suggestions where innovative leadership gaps are spotted. For instance, researchers discovered  glaring gaps in skills needed to lead well for the innovative era we’ve entered.  The Center for Creative Leadership asked 2,220 leaders from 15 organizations in three countries, what leadership skills appear inadequate to meet current and future demands.

Top missing skills they found were leaders’ ability to:

  • Lead and motivate people;
  • Plan ahead and create doable strategies to reach a shared vision;
  • Facilitate organizational change;
  • Inspire commitment by rewarding people’s achievements;
  • Communicate well with top management;
  • Persevere with good results in adverse conditions;
  • Learn quickly as new needs arise for technology or business insights.

In my field for instance, natural leaders might suggest ways innovative ways to:

  1. Show genuine openness to hear,  and grow from another’s wisdom.
  2. Offer respect and concern to the person asked.
  3. Draw out talent from people, by showcasing what they do well.
  4. Offer another person the chance to shine by the expected answer.
  5. Indicate curiosity that carves pathways for answers to build forward.
  6. Come clothed in humility that only those who ask and listen possess.
  7. Hold no bias and instead show openness to learn and grow together.
  8. Inspire others to wait around to hear the exciting responses triggered.
  9. Communicate with tone that creates space for a genuine answer.
  10. Build goodwill among those who may disagree by answers offered.

The What if kind of questions you ask Gary, may ratchet up pioneer leadership skills, but they also tend to be harder to ask in stifled bureaucracies where few are willing to risk shattering the silences that money controls. When that happens – we reach into social media for visionary possibilities. Then, in Victor Frankl’s words: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.“ 

Look forward to others' solutions to challenges raised in your poignant question:-)

kate-low's picture
Dear Ellen,
Your comment has sparked in me doing up a hack myself. Please do give me your very true comments at this link.
christian-briggs's picture
Hi Gary,
Great post. I meant to contact you after seeing a great talk you gave at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2009, but did not, so here is a first contact. 
One piece of advice i would give to a natural leader who wishes to work within the formal system of an organization (trying to undermine or overthrow that system is also an option, of course) is to try re-framing the struggle of the people who are stymie-ing as a problem of fluency. My colleagues and i have been researching organizations and the challenges that they are having with/as a result of digital technologies, and have found that not only is there a lack of what we are calling "literacy" (knowing how to use digital tools transactionally), but that there is, more importantly, a lack of what we are calling "fluency" (knowing and being comfortable with when and why to use digital tools transformationally).  
When framed this way, the stymied natural leader can start thinking of ways to move her/his stymie-ers (sorry to beat this word to death) toward a comfort level not only with digital technologies, but also with the associated changes that their use enables/necessitates within organizations.  There will still be obstructionists and bunglers of course, but our research and consulting with organizations is revealing a much greater number of people who react to the decentralized nature of digital communities, the necessity of leadership by example, the necessity of sharing imperfect ideas early, etc, etc. as if they are experiencing an entirely new language or culture. It is as if their workplace,  their customer base, their society have been invaded by a bunch of people who speak a foreign language and who take part in completely foreign cultural practices. For many, their initial tendency is to reject it, but once they are fluent enough, they can then determine which parts of the new language/culture they find useful for their situation.
mireille-jansma's picture
Yes, interesting question. Great food for thought. Please allow me to be controversial? For one, I think the whole Gen X, Y, Z thing is a hoax. Or to express it a bit more carefully: a simplification invented by marketeers selling a solution to a self-invented problem. Astrology - 12 signs, 12 ascendants, 144 combinations - shines with nuance next to the Gen X and Y concept! Meyer-Briggs comes next: stupid as categorizing people into coloured boxes is, it is still way better than stereotyping according to age. Generalisations about generations ignore where people come from (Africa? India? China?), ignore individual character and imply that everyone is the same. White, western, good schooling, access to computers. Duh? Even in western societies these kinds of kids are just a part of  a diverse whole.

Second, the changes we aspire and talk about at the mix are not about tools. Tools may be used for good and bad. Many people talk about the liberating effects of social media. But social media are a two edged sword. They may be used to supress as well as liberate. To control as well as set free. To raise mobs as well as enable debate and learning. It is very important that we all realise this and that we do not equate means with ends, however precious these ends are to us.

frode-lundsten's picture
Interesting post and question. I believe, where technology does not make a natural leader, technology can hinder the natural leader to flourish. The looseness of many social media platforms is not reflected in many organizations today, where formal e-mail correspondence often take precedence over informal online "chats".
My advice is that a natural leader must brake free of this old school technology-driven communication form and plunge in only using social media for his/hers communication. This is true to the "Facebook Generation" leader and will support the authenticity of the leadership style.