The Social Age is global: take the book. I wrote it in the UK, Philippines and US. Mainly in coffee shops. The typographer i found on Twitter. The printer was in Chelmsford, but the actual printing press was in Latvia and it shipped via the Ukraine. The geography was incidental to the relationships and capability that the network provided me.
But whilst the technology connects us, not everything is easily globalised: as we travel, we cross boundaries that are both legal, geographical and cultural, some more easily visible than others.
Social Leadership is a style that is grounded within communities, but like all things that touch a community, it requires shared values and purpose, something which may not always exist.
People are different: not just by person, but by location and experience. Working in America is very different from working in London, Singapore or France. Each has it’s quirks, but none of them are global. Our education systems and social conventions leave us with legacy behaviours and patterns of thinking that are deeply embedded. In some societies, class systems are still strong, whilst in others they are almost entirely devolved. This is not an easy path to tread.
When i was designing the Social Leadership model, i was very conscious of this global perspective and the need to keep it value neutral: i failed. The model is intentionally liberal: grounded in values of equality and fairness. The more i worked on it, the stronger this became apparent to me.
Not all cultures share the same legal frameworks or values of equality as my own. Indeed, even within my own culture, those values are not universally shared, but in the model i present for Social Leadership, they are embodied. Why? Because it’s right.
In the news this week, Emma Watson, the Harry Potter actress, has been speaking in an impassioned way about equality for women and how men can be part of this battle. She has had an overwhelmingly positive response from many, but, inevitably, in the semi secretive and anonymous world of the internet, where technology amplifies our stories, there has been hate and vitriol. This morning, threats to release private photos online. This is bullying and bullying is wrong.
Much as i love to see our evolved ecosystem of technology as a force for good, i recognise that often it isn’t: used instead for control or persecution. Our responsibilities as Social Leaders, let along as decent citizens, are to fight for right. Which is why i embedded those notions within the Social Leadership model (under ‘Social Capital’).
Social Leadership is not a fuzzy or fluffy approach: it’s a clear imperative to lead effectively in the Social Age. It’s not an alternative to formal, hierarchical leadership styles, but it does recognise that these days those styles deliver a decreased return on investment. The world is changing and the ways we engage and lead within it need to change too.
Formal hierarchies, relying on formal, positional authority, have limited ability to influence in the social spaces where so much of our lives play out. Social Authority, based upon hard earned reputation, does have this influence.
At a high level, we can view the imperatives of Social Leadership thus: ‘care‘, ‘productivity‘ and ‘co-creation‘. ‘Care‘ is about doing the right things and taking people on the journey with us. ‘Productivity‘ is about being highly effective. ‘Co-Creation‘ is about understanding how communities work and our role within them. The full Social Leadership model and curriculum explore these areas in great detail, but for this conversation, exploring global perspectives of Social Leadership, let’s stick at the high level.
Whilst legislative frameworks and cultural norms may not be universal, certain principles are: such as trust and it’s role in bonding communities together. Whilst we may differ in certain aspects, the ‘care’ role of Social Leaders is to ensure that nobody is left behind, disenfranchised by technology, status, gender or sexuality. Is this a Western, liberal view? Yes, i recognise that is it, but equally the need for ‘care’ isn’t, so at least we can identify the space to work in.
Take homosexuality: it’s illegal in a lot of countries. Tunisia for starters. Morocco. Egypt. The Seychelles. Barbados (although not enforced). It’s a long list. I could go on. Probably until around 80 countries were listed.
Now take the realities of the Social Age: organisations work globally, with offices and tens or hundreds of thousands of employees around the world. So do they treat them equally?
Clearly not: lower pay, worse working conditions, in the worst cases sweat shops and diminished safety procedures. But it’s increasingly hard to get away with it. To trade in the Social Age means social responsibility. You can’t hide your cheap labour so easily anymore. Look at Apple, announcing the names of suppliers it suspects are using unethically sourced materials: their reputation takes precedence over their contracts. They recognise the importance of authenticity and social responsibility. But they’re also under pressure for working conditions and suicides in the factories that make the shiny products: distanced by oceans from many of those who use them.
The amplification effects of social mean that these stories spread fast.
So here’s the crux of it: in a global business, we will be connected into communities that cross these boundaries. We will work alongside people who have different frameworks of what is right and wrong, or who work under different legal systems.
Is it feasible to work on a team that does this? Or is it a liberal illusion perpetrated by western organisations operating globally. Can you really have a team functioning where one team member, joining the community from the UK would be jailed if they were sat in the same office as someone else on the call from Africa? A pragmatic view would be to ignore the problem and just get on with the work, but that approach lacks integrity.
Social Leaders require high social capital, and the socially responsible business should do things that are right, not just things that are required by law.
But what’s to say that my version of ‘right’ is better than yours. Or someone in Nigeria? I guess we all have our perspectives and laws that are founded upon them, but some things are clear.
The Social Age is seeing the globalisation of communication and the easy amplification of messages. Change is afoot and it’s faster than ever. Organisations need to be productive, that much is universal. They also need to take care of people, because Social Leadership relies on communities and you can’t form a community without shared values and intent.
The real challenge for countries is that they will become irrelevant: the nation state, bounded by geography swept aside in favour of the corporate state or indeed the Facebook state. It’s not as idle an idea as you may think: coca cola already swept aside the Berlin Wall with promises of pizza and MTV. Consumers tend towards liberalism when it brings with it widescreen tv and smartphones.
It’s a matter of respect really: we each have a right to our beliefs, but there must equally be a responsibility for fairness that underpins them, and we may have to fight for that fairness to be recognised. Which is where ‘social capital’ in Social Leadership comes in. In the Social Age, in a global business, we can’t afford to ignore equality and to recognise that our very taking a stance is likely to drive change. Just as Emma Watson chose her stance, surely recognising that there would be a short term cost (but a huge rise in social authority: i’ve been bombarded with people sharing her video with me).
Social Authority can fully subvert the formal: look no further than the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring. Messages that gain support are loud: the technology facilitates this, but it’s the underlying social processes that are significant. If communities really are forged upon shared values and common goals, then social technology puts ownership of these firmly back into the community’s hands.
I recognise it’s a fine line: i have to declare my liberal position to maintain my own authenticity, but i do believe the Social Leadership model provides a framework for organisations to tackle some of these cross cultural challenges, with both humility and pragmatism.
It’s unthinkable that any liberal western organisation would allow restrictive views to shape how they treated women or people in same sex relationships in their head office in London or New York, although it’s equally unthinkable that some organisations aren’t willing to benefit from poor labour practices in parts of the world whose voice isn’t heard so loudly. These are two sides of the same coin.
Developing Social Leaders, throughout our organisation and around the world, united by shared values of fairness and humility will help us bridge these gaps. And be more effective as an organisation. It just starts with some simple shared values: of care, to seek productivity and to understand how we work in communities.
Complex issues require diplomatic solutions, but these issues are live in every global organisation today, they’re just largely ignored or hidden. Bringing them to the front and living our values will help drive the change to a more equal, socially responsible, global society.