Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Social Media and the True Meaning of Leadership

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.

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11 Comments
  1. On October 12th, 2010 at 4:21 PM Gina said:

    Tanveer- It can be difficult for some leaders that have for instance started the businesses. They have a hard time letting go because for so long they were the sole person doing every task as the company was getting off the ground. They have poured their blood, sweat & tears into building the company and fear that the next person may not do each thing as well as they can. It's like raising children. You give them your all for 18 years- (or more) you are so used to helping them along. But then comes the day that you have to trust that you have done your job well and they are ready to be on their own.

    Letting go is a hard pill to swallow but eventually it becomes easier as you do it more and more.

  2. On October 12th, 2010 at 5:24 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I agree with you Gina that it can be hard for entrepreneurs and small business owners to let go of what they perceive as control over their company. But this is where the importance of leaders developing their vision for their organization and communicating it consistently to their team comes into play.

    Regardless of the size of your enterprise, all business owners and leaders have an idea of what they want to accomplish through their leadership role. And knowing what it is you want your organization to stand for will help business owners remember that they created their companies not to control others or micromanage their every move. Instead, their goal was to create something of value – both for themselves and for those who'd benefit from their products/services. In this light, it's not so much a matter of business owners losing control as it is rallying others to help them to continue to build and grow on the foundation they created.

    As you said, Gina, it can be difficult to do in the beginning, but with time and with seeing the results it gives, it does become easier and easier to do.

    Thanks again Gina for your comment.

  3. On October 13th, 2010 at 9:39 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Tanveer:

    Excellent read, two great examples. Remaining in command and clearly communicating an organization's vision internally and externally critical. I have monitored my fair share of FB pages in the past few months. I like to add one more tip to your blog that comes from Frank Gehry, world famous architect: "Accept criticism, wear it like an article of clothing for a while, then toss it and move on." It amazes me how defensive everyone is getting when people speak up vs. being humble.

  4. On October 13th, 2010 at 11:23 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That's a great quote, Jim, and definitely applicable to the interactions businesses will face in being present on social media. And again, this comes down to those two elements of control and command.

    For those who feel they need to be in control of the message, receiving such comments can certainly feel like a threat that needs to be quickly silenced or hidden from view. On the other hand, those who focus instead on remaining in command of the vision they've created for their organization can find it easier (though not any less painful) to accept such criticisms, as the perspective will be on what's spurring these comments and how addressing them would align with their vision going ahead.

    Good to have you sharing your thoughts on this, Jim. I had a feeling this would be of particular interest to you.

  5. On October 14th, 2010 at 12:54 PM @edjvt said:

    Hi Tanveer, very good post. I agree with you point of view and with Charlene's quote. I really think
    it's very difficult for some leaders to trust on its team and let them work without constant pressure,
    I believe it's part of the old concepts of management. A CEO of a project which I was involved told me
    once "I like to work in the old-fashioned management way". This way was to have constant control of its
    personal. On that moment I thought "What a terrible way to lead a team". As I told I think that leaders
    must trust on its team abilities, compromise and profesionality. If don't then it shouldn't be there.

    Constant communication is the key (in my opinion) to get in command without losing control.

    Greetings

  6. On October 14th, 2010 at 2:32 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Edgard. The interesting thing about leaders who don't trust their employees do so more out of a concern that any mistakes or failures would reflect back on them, instead of focusing instead of on how it would impact their organization's ability to reach their objectives. After all, if they were more concerned with attaining those goals, they'd understand that they need to trust their employees in order to get the best performance out of them

    And you're absolutely right that the key to maintaining command over your team is through constant communication, both in terms of how their employees efforts contribute to their vision for the organization, as well as keeping informed by their employees as to how those measures are really addressing reaching those communicated goals.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience on this, Edgard.

  7. On October 14th, 2010 at 2:21 PM Liberto said:

    I like your words Tanveer.

    However I disagree in one thing, which I would like to offer my perspective for. Where does a powerful and inspiring vision come from? I do believe that the vision – to be powerful and inspiring – get to be "dreamed" by all the members of the organization, not just by the "top" managers (perhaps they are also leaders, but both terms are not necessarily the same).

    What if companies opened the space for all their employees get engaged into dreaming the vision they want for the future?

    That would be, to me collective leadership.

    Big Hug!

  8. On October 14th, 2010 at 3:46 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Liberto,

    While I agree that it's important that employees be involved in making the vision or goals a leader has for their organization a reality, the fact is that defining what that vision should be really does fall on the shoulders of the leader.

    Think about any circumstance where a person takes on a new leadership role within an organization – whether it's a new principal at a school, a new coach for the city's major sports team, or a new CEO for your company. In all of these situations, whether you're a parent or child, a sports player or a fan, an employee or a customer, the first thought that naturally comes to mind is what are the plans/ambitions/dreams this leader has for the organization and what role will we play in making it happen?

    Of course, these new leaders have to share that vision with the participants/interested parties and then it's up to us to decide whether this new vision for the organization is aligned with what we want to accomplish in our roles within the team. This is where I think many companies/organizations face stumbling blocks as the vision they might have is not one shared by everyone, and as such, it's difficult to make it a reality.

    However, if you look at the most successful companies, it's those where the leaders make sure that the employees they have within their workforce are those that get this vision and share their passion for making it a reality. And in that way, it does become something that everyone shares and feels a sense of ownership for.

    A good example of this is Tony Hsieh from Zappos who in his new book "Delivering Happiness" points out how after they told the employees of what their new vision was for their company, they actually offered to pay any employee who wanted to leave because they couldn't see the value/use in pursuing this new vision. Sure enough, several people did take the offer and now they have a team of employees who not only believe in this vision Tony had for Zappos, but believe in it with a passion because they do see it as being their own.

    For me, leadership is not something that is done 'by committee', but instead by those who recognize that it's their responsibility to serve those under their care, to ensure they succeed and grow because such measures will benefit not only the employee, but the organization as a whole.

    Thanks again, Liberto, for your comment. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts on this.

  9. On October 15th, 2010 at 9:40 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Liberto:

    On paper the concept of collective leadership is great, but in reality I have to second Tanveer's point that leadership is not by committee, but for those that take on the responsibility to serve – guide, teach/mentor, problem solve, etc. We have to be realistic that some people do not have the ability to set a course or develop a vision and are just content to show up. I was once sitting with a woman in one of the woman's organizations I belong to in the food industry. She turned to me and said: "Jimmy I don't want to be sitting in the boardroom in ten years (the vision of the organization is to have one woman in every boardroom in ten years). I just want to be a good wife, a good mother and bring home a good paycheck." Her comment has resonated for me in years. Now she has vision.

  10. On October 31st, 2010 at 11:13 AM Larisa Gurnick said:

    The phrase that you highlighted is excellent! A good way to begin the process of giving up control yet remaining in command is to implement an internal social media program. This means creating an employee community for a specific purpose, such as sharing knowledge across divisions, communicating the purpose, the do's and don't of how the community is to be used and then monitoring it through some readily available tools. Getting comfortable with this phase and evolving a social media policy that suits your particular organization is a good first step that does not seem overwhelming in terms of giving up control.

  11. On November 1st, 2010 at 12:12 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Larisa. I do believe that part of the reason why so many companies are still wary about using social media – either internally or externally – is because of this misplaced concern over losing control of what their employees will be able to say. And yet, here's where we see the importance of leaders developing their sense of command – by establishing a vision of what you want your organization to be defined as, you not only hold your employees accountable to working within that framework, but your employees will also have the means to hold their leaders accountable to keeping the organization on track toward reaching that goal.

    Building that sense of accountability and teamwork will help make it easier for leaders to recognize that their job is not to control others, but instead to remain in command of what it is they want their team and organization to accomplish.

    Thanks again, Larisa for your comment on this piece.

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