We could view Authority as the goal of Social Leadership. Or, rather, we could if we remained anchored in 20th century notions of leadership. Authority is not the goal, but it is a means to an end. If we have authority, we are better able to engage in certain communities, our messages carry more weight and are more likely to be amplified (if we curate our space well and tell magnetic stories). Authority in the Social Age is founded upon reputation, forged within our communities.
I need to provide some context here: Social Leadership is not intended to replace other forms, it’s complimentary. It just carries Leadership over, out of purely formal ones and into the semi formal spaces that surround it. If we rely on formal, hierarchical forms of power and authority, we limit our influence to formal organisational spaces. At a time when meaning is created in communities, semi formal, crossing boundaries and geographies, forms of power rooted in the formal have limited appeal and leverage.
Social Leadership requires engagement: based on trust and integrity. Once we move away from purely formal spaces, boundaries can become unclear, we are creating permissive environments for conversation without always clarifying what types of conversations we will permit. This ambiguity introduces risk for everyone (risks that we may not even realise we have adopted). For example: we create a social collaborative forum and ask people to share ideas for how we can improve the reputation of the business. Someone shares a story about a project they worked on that went wrong and what they learnt from it. At their annual performance review, someone produces this data as evidence of their failed project. Is that fair?
Any notion of authority in social leadership needs to take into account these constraints and considerations: the territory can be unclear. Good social leaders navigate it, but also help others to do so.
Amplification is a building block of authority, but it relies on this trust being in place: the integrity of any community is founded upon it. Without trust, we cannot effectively engage in a relationship space (although we may engage at a transactional level). Transactional engagement is simply going through the motions: doing what we think is required of us. This, incidentally, is probably how much organisational training happens. Going through the motions without authenticity, because the risk of opening up is too great.
Authority in based upon our reputation, which is earned from actions, which is why social leadership is about what you do as much as what you say. The stories you tell and the stories that are told about you.
Because the authority of social leadership is earned, it helps us to amplify our messages, to gain greater traction, which is stronger than the brute force approach that underlies formal hierarchies.
Strong, socially mediated authority reinforces our ability to be effective, in Social Age terms, it reinforces our ability to create meaning within and alongside our communities. This ‘sense making‘ function of communities is highly valuable: co-creative and co-owned, built from the cognitive surplus and investment of many people.
One of the areas of social leadership that can be most challenging is it’s contextual quality. Whilst within one community i may have authority, in another, i have none. Or, indeed, at a different time within the same community my authority may vary: not because my reputation is damaged, but simply because communities serve different purposes at different times, so leadership (and indeed all the other roles) can be contextual. This is one reason why humility is a desirable trait in social leaders: they are willing to put down the mantle of leadership (or indeed have it removed from them for a while) for the wellbeing of the wider community. This is why i describe social leadership as ‘socially moderated’, it always requires permission and framing by the community itself. Anytime we exercise the tools of authority without the permission of community, we are simply falling back on positional authority.
As a side note, it is perfectly possible to have positional authority within community spaces: it’s simply the choice of social leaders not to exercise that power, to be humble, and to rely on the community conferring different forms of authority.
Social leadership is an extension of authority, from formal spaces into social ones: it’s interesting because, in the Social Age, meaning is created largely in these spaces. They are the gateway to increased creativity and innovation: the lifeblood of agile organisations. We are not abandoning formal authority, but rather extending it, with a different set of skills.
The rise of the social CEO is an interesting phenomenon: people who exercise the ultimate positional authority and yet set it aside to engage directly with the community. Naturally our formal authority can carry across in terms of reputation to social spaces, but we can’t rely on it. A celebrity may garner a large following from simply being famous: but if their input is inane, it won’t grow, amplify or confer authority. Conversely, someone with no claim to fame as all can develop great authority purely in social spaces (through great storytelling and resonance).
Authority is complex, nuanced, contextual. In social terms, it’s founded upon reputation (built in turn upon curation, storytelling, sharing and engagement in community). We can exercise both formal, hierarchical authority and also socially moderated authority, but one does not guarantee (or depend) upon the other. Overall, we exist in an ecosystem where formal authority is losing ground to the socially moderated variety, so understanding authority in terms of social leadership is powerful.