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October 02, 2009

What is leadership?

Yesterday FutureGov held an event in London and I gave a talk in which I asked whether in public services and social business we can raise the game of social involvement. (big thanks are due to the excellent Dominic Campbell at FutureGov for the invitation.)

At the end there were a couple of questions about leadership. A much-bandied word, maybe it's time again to look at what it means.

Since the formative experiences of Seth Godin’s triiibes.com community began over a year ago I've come to agree with Seth that the ingredient that’s being easily missed in social communities, and the one that’s maybe being ducked in connection with the idea of social business, is how we develop concepts of leadership.

@RobertBrook's tweet in the #socorg feed yesterday ‘leadership is a word that makes me nervous’ got me thinking. It's easy to understand why it makes a lot of people nervous. When someone else has too much of it and when we don’t have enough it’s a threatening experience, sufficiently threatening to activate a fundamental sense of insecurity. Social organizations are meant to be egalitarian, so what gives? And what does talking about 'new leadership skills' say about the ones we have now?

One the one hand, social organizations play to our idealistic drives for a better world and offer freedom. On the other they represent a primal fear of loss of control.

Social business design needs to address both these twin drivers together in order to prevent the kind of attrition that comes from creating a negative feedback loop and adoption failure, reinforcing old patterns.

Existing organizations cannot become social overnight. Social organizations are intrinsically organic, defined by new levels and degrees of involvement and their success comes from how well they express themselves as shared entities.

Loic tweet 10m followers

And the glue in the truly collaborative experience is identity, purpose and task. There's no internal and external in the social organization, its validity of purpose comes from those who simply want to be a part of it.

With affinity and the desire to connect driving the viral nature of networked communications, the tectonic economic plates may have shifted a little. Spending cuts require that we look for and measure value in new ways, like the Klondike trail did. It's leading us to involvement in events and ideas that are compelling and credible. An adjustment in emphasis around less factory, more affinity, is a big part of the power intrinsic in social organizations and social business.

In order to realize it, we must choose creativity as part of the developmental path. Technology is enabling art and science to act together as counterpoints on a heightened scale, but it’s easy to lose sight of the art.

Leadership with art is creative vision, and one can argue that leadership with only science is control. The internet disperses power, the consequence of which is that, as long as we have free will, intrinsic inspiration will trump external control.

That is why I think we must recognize that the progress of the social revolution involves freedom of expression, an increased emphasis on creative expression, and on talent development. In this way we can have better experiences.

Cultural DNA is a unique intangible asset, the lifeblood of any organization and especially the social organization, and culture comes from the generative experience of sourcing self and purpose. More than an algorithmic or an outsourced approach, the creative vision of leadership is what is going to encourage community involvement and is the key to developing consequent value.

The social age requires association, rather than disassociation. I think that means we mustn't forget leadership, we must reframe it. Leadership as talent development and creative vision can go a long way.


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Great post Anne and there is an issue here in what people mean by both leaderships skills and the model of leadership. I would hazard a guess that the model of leadership needed in social organisations is emerging and relies much more on a persons own sense of personal leadership. Clearly in the future this may scare some people as they cannot defer this responsibility "up" the heirachy and adopt a robotic function for others they will relish the challenge. For me leadership is the collective gathering together of that relish.

Nicely done, Anne. You know my bias toward Servant Leadership, so no need to beat that drum. Oh, what the hell, let's give it one more thump just for good measure.

Have a lovely weekend


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