Last week, a few of the leadership bloggers who I enjoy reading and conversing with were invited to the 2010 World Business Forum in New York City to share with their readers some of the ideas presented by such renowned business leaders and thinkers as Jack Welsh, Joseph Grenny, and A.G. Lafley. Among the many interesting insights and points presented during this leadership forum, there was one comment regarding social media I found particularly interesting and worth more examination.
Charlene Li, the founder of Altimeter Group and author of the book “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform The Way You Lead”, gave a presentation on developing effective social media strategies during which she made the following comment about how businesses should approach social media:
Social media is about giving up control yet remaining in command.”
Upon reading this quote, I couldn’t help but notice that in addition to being an accurate assessment of social media, this statement can also be easily applied to the field of leadership. To help illustrate this connection, let’s look at two examples of social media blunders made by companies this year, and what these mistakes can teach us about effective leadership.
Earlier this year, Nestlé came under attack by Greenpeace for their continued use of what the environmental group called “unsustainable palm oil”. The environmental group’s campaign lead to a growing tide of criticisms posted by consumers on the company’s Facebook page. Nestlé decided to respond to this undesired attention by deleting any negative comments posted on their Facebook page. In addition, the company released a statement on Facebook warning that anyone who used an altered version of their company’s logo would be “deleted” from company’s list of Facebook fans, thereby preventing them from commenting on their page.
What followed was a public relations nightmare as more and more people took to their Facebook and Twitter accounts to spread word about these measures, leading to an even greater backlash against the company beyond the use of palm oil in their products.
Clearly, Nestlé made the big mistake of thinking that they could not only control what was being said about their company on social media sites, but that they could also tell their customers what they could or could not do. In an obvious lapse of good judgement, Nestlé forgot that treating those your company is supposed to serve as though they’re serfs living on your land is never good for business.
Of course, customers are not the only group that leaders are supposed to serve. Indeed, part of the responsibility of being a leader is to serve those under your stewardship; of providing them with the tools, resources, and guidance necessary to ensure they succeed in their roles within your team.
Many of us, though, have undoubtedly worked with leaders who insist on micromanaging their team. In most cases, this is done out of fear that giving employees the slightest bit of freedom or responsibility will only result in failure, giving rise to concerns about a poor reflection of their leadership within the organization. Naturally, as was the case with Nestlé’s social media gaffe, attempting to exert control over others only leads to an end result that is far from what one might have hoped to achieve. The only difference being is that the negative impact that comes with attempting to control your employees might not be as apparent, at least not until it’s too little too late.
So it’s pretty clear that whether it’s on social media platforms or in leadership positions, attempting to exert some form of control over others is a pretty bad idea. But what about the other aspect of social media that Li pointed out in her statement, that of remaining in command? Is there a potential for a negative fallout if leaders ignore this aspect to their leadership as well? To find out, let’s look at an example that demonstrates what Li was referring to in her presentation.
There’s little doubt that this was an especially bad year for the British oil company, BP. As a result of the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, BP now has the undesirable reputation of being responsible for one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history. As oil began to gush from the broken wellhead at the beginning of this environmental nightmare, Twitter users began to take notice of an account that appeared to be managed by the troubled oil company under the handle @BPGlobalPR.
Initially, there was once again shock and outrage as indifferent or sarcastic remarks were made through this Twitter account about the growing environmental crisis underway in the Gulf. That is, until people found out that this wasn’t an official BP account, but one that was setup by someone to mock the company’s repeated slip-ups.
Where things get particularly interesting is that as this account drew more followers, and with it an increase in negative publicity toward the beleaguered oil company, BP chose to remain silent on Twitter, not bothering to present a countering voice with which to inform the public of their efforts to try and stop the leak. As such, the company’s detractors and critics were given free rein to drag the company down, both in public opinion and on the stock market.
Granted, BP had some big issues on their plate at the time. However, that’s never an excuse to ignore the other problems that your organization is facing, especially if they start to compound and transform into a single massive one that can potentially collapse your company.
While most of us are fortunate that our companies are not facing such severe problems, we can still find situations where leaders fail to step in to address an unresolved situation, preferring instead to wait it out and hope that things will somehow fix themselves.
What we’re seeing here is the importance of being in command to the ability of leaders to define and manage the vision they have for their organization, if not also the need for leaders to enable their employees to act on this vision so that they can respond appropriately to unforeseen issues or problems. Communicating this vision will also make any future changes easier to accept as employees can appreciate how such measures will ensure their collective efforts remain on course. As BP demonstrated through their mishandling of the Gulf oil spill, both on Twitter and elsewhere, leaving your ship with no one at the helm is a surefire way to either wreck your ship on the rocks or have it drift aimlessly in the middle of the sea.
In the end, it’s understandable why leaders need to be “results-driven” as one of their responsibilities is to ensure their organization can attain their goals while under their leadership. However, as these examples show – and what Charlene Li’s statement eloquently points out – recognizing the difference between controlling your employees and commanding your team will make all the difference as to whether you succeed in leading your organization to reaching those objectives.
So what do you think? Are leaders more successful if they focus on commanding their team rather than controlling their employees? What has your own experiences revealed about this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.