The Leadership Myth

The early days in a formal leadership role are important: it’s where we set the foundations of our aura. It’s where we define what we will be doing and what is most certainly out of our remit. It’s where we take our initial stance and start to set boundaries: what will you do, what won’t you do, and how will you respond under pressure.

The Leadership Myth

Boundaries are important: a matter of perspective and perception. When we change our formal role, we must actively move to redefine our boundaries, especially when the formal position changes within an existing tribal structure, such as when we are promoted out of a team to lead it.

I was talking to someone recently who described her embarrassment at accidentally calling someone very senior on his mobile phone. Her sense was at having crossed a boundary, at having broken a rule: you don’t do that do people at his level, because at his level, there’s a semi mythical status. Which is fine, but it’s worth remembering that this myth is created.

In formal leadership contexts, the mythology is usually clear, often defined by seniority. In Social Leadership contexts, far less so, especially because Social Leadership is all about engagement. It’s all about access.

We do see levels of boundaries being set within social collaborative contexts: such as private LinkedIn groups, ones for CEOs for example. Membership is exclusive, by invitation: once you are inside, you benefit from the social community, but it’s a protected space. But for much of the social authority that sits behind Social Leaders, that authority is gained by breaking down barriers. Flying over to the US on Virgin, i was told the story of how Richard Branson often likes to push the coffee cart along and talk to passengers. Maybe it’s true: maybe it happened once or twice and now forms part of his mythology. In any case, he curates a reputation as approachable, on the same level, one of us.

I’ve been reflecting on how this mythology is created, or curated. Maybe these four aspects are a good starting point: ‘Actions‘, ‘Stance‘, ‘Communication‘ and ‘Disengagement‘.

The actions we take both create and reinforce our mythology. It was one of the earliest lessons i learnt when working with senior individuals within formal hierarchies. Because i don’t typically wear the badges that define status, such as a suit or a uniform, the way people deal with you typically reflects the way you deal with them. If you walk into a room and act as a subordinate, people will treat you like a subordinate. If you act like an equal, people will treat you equally. Or at least recognise that, within your mythology, you are willing to make your views clear.

So our actions are significant, both for how we create our myth and how we let other people define theirs.

It’s through our actions that we build trust, notably through the consistency of our actions over time. So if we change our role within a formal hierarchy, we can change our actions to reflect our new role, but we must do so in a clear and consistent manner: set a new baseline. Within the social spaces though, this is harder: our success comes through our engagement in communities. The key thing is to retain consistency and narrate our thinking. Often people talk about being too busy to do this, but that’s nonsense: it’s about doing the things that truly add value and stopping the things that don’t.

Communication is the next dimension: again, we control our tone of voice and how we pitch ourselves. We can choose to be directive, empathic, supportive or brusque. We actively curate our aura. When we look at Social Leadership though, the thing to remember is this: there is a foundation of humility and a desire to act without any expectation of reciprocity. Social Leaders support others to help them be successful and do so without bargaining. It’s not a case of doing this for everyone of course (although in social spaces we may do exactly that: provide input or support in a community to someone we have never met precisely because they are in our community. Where communities are based on shared values and purpose, we have to express those values through our actions).

Primarily, we do this for people surrounding us: helping them to be successful. Being generous with our time, expertise and resources.

Our Stance defines our style, but our reactive style defines our aura: how do you react. Take the person who got the phone call from a minion. How do they react: do they ignore it, take it, return it or use it as a chance to be generous? The action is not the thing that defines the myth: it’s the reaction. Richard Branson pushing a coffee cart is not big news: a community that is still talking about it years later is.

Our ability to disengage is significant, in both our formal and social leadership spaces. As our role and purpose change, we can reinforce and adapt our mythology to reflect that. Remaining engaged in the wrong spaces does two things: it wastes our time by diluting our effort and, secondly, it can actively detract from our capability by disenfranchising others in the community. It’s fine for a senior leader to be highly socially engaged, but if they do that in a space designed to give permission for more junior individuals to make sense of things, they may accidentally inhibit that ability as their myth swamps the space.

The first step of Social Leadership is ‘Curation‘: our mythology is another aspect of that. Understanding how the myth is created and how it impacts on both other people’s perceptions of us and our ability to be effective is significant.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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