Friday Thread: What is leadership in a digital age?

The world is moving faster than ever before. And the capacity of our social and political institutions are struggling to keep up with, never mind understand that change.

Today’s #SluggerReport looked at how the digital revolution is calling for a rather different form of leadership, if we are to begin operating outside the current operate outside the Pied Piper/new prophet/populist mode.

As Neal Lawson has pointed out in the case of New Labour, the conditions have changed profoundly from the days when Tony Blair built the New Labour project from the Captain’s Cabin. He based that project…

…around a model of party control and iron discipline that can’t be repeated in an age of social media and is impossible to imagine without the existence of a once in a generation political operator – Mr.  T Blair. There is no turning back to 1997.

Earlier this week, Una Mullally had this to say on Irish Labour’s attempts to harness Twitter with a single hashtag (r):

If Irish political parties want to use the internet with any success, they have to move away from migrating the same old PR ideas online. They have to actually engage in a more conversationalist way, allowing the online electorate to access information about policy and initiatives and ideas, and then listen to what comes out of that.

As the marriage referendum showed, people engage with issues online. The internet won’t change general apathy or cynicism, but it does give people an opportunity to engage.

The question is how do you do that, extract a functional return on that engagement, and come home with the shirt still on your back?

The answer is, in part at least, developing a new approach to leadership. One which doesn’t assume the audience is merely a passive consumer. According to my friend and colleague John Kellden, situational leadership is a step away from traditional models:

  • all about cocreating joint ownership of frames around the relevant data;
  • can be easily measured by two indices: shared understanding and shared purpose;
  • is a process, not a role. That said, the process needs to be embraced and embodied by all stakeholders;
  • emerges out of self-leadership and servant leadership, based on a willing embrace of our own character and a continuous choosing and keeping true to our own transforming practice.[emphasis added]

It’s not what any of us  grew up to expect from the world. But given the alternative (Pied Piperism leading whole societies off the face of the earth). But the willingness to be measured (and constant checking back with sources) is one of the key distinguishing marks of leadership as process.

We are a long way from that yet, not because there is no will, but because current forms of governance are lagging the new tools of popular discourse by some considerably long way…



  • Other than discussion over the tenacity of cybernats, don’t recall much discussion on impact of social media for #GE2015. Contrasted to the vastly exaggerated role social media was attributed to #GE2010. Reading ref Conservative campaign, it was a ground war focus not digital (which actually failed in the middle of campaign). People get confused, as here, between the central tenets of leadership, and the communication channels which are available to project that leadership.

  • 23×7

    Social media and peer to peer networks are pretty much trashing
    the idea of the “brand” and political parties are as much a brand as Nike, Coke,
    Apple etc.

    The brand emerged as a surrogate for knowledge. It provided the reassurance of quality and dependability in the absence of other information. Today we are no longer starved of information on which to make our choices for example reaching out to independent review sites before making purchases or booking a hotel. Obviously this decline in the importance of the brand terrifies marketers.

    This nervousness results in campaigns like #TalkToJoan where established corporations and political parties try to “get social” and end up falling flat on their face at they apply legacy marketing techniques to new media. They fail to fully understand the medium and instead try to control and broadcast on networks designed for more ad hoc and fluid conversations. Social networks take conversations to a hyper level. Conversations are not about broadcasting marketing messages via social media channels. Conversations involve
    participants both talking and listening, not broadcasting and monitoring.

    I do think social media represents a major opportunity for politics once we get a new generation of politicians that know how it works. Social media represent an opportunity to break the control of legacy media held by Murdoch. Both President Obama’s election victory and the success of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy hint at what is possible.

    Looking forward it is inevitable, IMO, that social media will spawn a global, or multinational political party. Previously political movements and parties were formed by like-minded individuals, locally connected. Now local connections are no longer necessary. We can find like-minded individuals anywhere.

  • mickfealty

    The network effect has been shredding attention (and value) since the big bang in 1987. The only way to avoid it is to be living in a cave TD! 😉

    If you look at change really really close up, you don’t see much. But over time you can see some big effects, some of them sudden and shocking.

    The mere fact that information is packaged now in tiny chunks of binary code which flows multi-directionally all at once tells you that the means we use to communicate behaves very differently from the one to one or one to a few methods we have been using heretofore.

    It’s not even a matter of discussion that these technologies are affecting politics. They are. End of.

    Cameron’s post ideological Toryism is by one light a resiling back to pragmatic Burkean instincts of the pre machine age, and it has served him pretty well.

    That’s an advantage to him in the sense that the machine we now use to communicate is chaotic (and pretty Hobbesian at its wilder edges).

    The reason no one is talking about the internet in 2015 like they did in 2010 is, I would humbly suggest, because we are now in a post impact era.

    Everyone knows the machine is chaotic: they are just struggling to fine tune strategies to try and game it like they did the old system.

    Sooner or later someone WILL figure it out… and then the rest will follow.