The Tension Between Formal And Social Leadership

Organisations need strong formal leadership: the things we have always done, the power we have always used. Leadership within a hierarchy, under the sanction of the organisation itself. An expression of authority based upon position and absolute control. They still need all of this, in certain contexts, but there is one key thing to consider: formal power is not enough. It’s not enough because people have changed, and the ecosystem we live in has changed, and these two elements have denuded and eroded the power of formal authority alone. Formal leaders can operate just fine in formal spaces, but if we want to go the whole way, we need to unlock the power of Social.

Aspects of Social Leadership - formal or social

Social Leadership describes a type of power which is moderated by the community itself: it’s contextual, consensual, dynamic and adaptive. It’s the type of power, based upon reputation, which operates in social spaces: within our sense making communities and networks. Social authority is what gives our voice credibility and strength in these spaces, and by being heard in these spaces, we gain access to social filtering, aggregating and amplification mechanisms, all of which help us directly to be more effective.

If formal leadership is powered by organisational hierarchy, Social Leadership is powered by reputation: our actions, taken with humility and generosity, fairly within the community, lead to a stronger reputation, which feeds into Social Authority. With that authority, we are able to lead, to challenge, to bring new ideas, to nurture and grow existing communities, to empower and build new ones. We are able to operate within the diversified strength and unheard wisdom of the crowd.

Authority in Social Leadership

There’s a dynamic behind this: formal authority can never fully subvert social. Social authority can always encircle and bypass formal. So the new balance needs to be consensual and embedded: it can’t be imposed by the formal. It’s not a case of engaging with communities by imposing formal authority into them: it’s a case of earning the right to be in the conversations that these communities are having. Earning a right not to be heard, but a permission to listen.

In formal contexts, we may need formal power, but even in these cases, there are great benefits for a formal leader to develop Social Authority. With access to our communities, we have access to sense making potential: an ability to hear how others are operating, both within and outside of our organisation, as well as to hear new ways to solve entrenched problems. Again, if we are willing to listen.

Sense Making in the Social Age

If we are able to align the energies of both spaces, of the formal hierarchy and the social communities, we are able to transform the organisation, to become truly Socially Dynamic. But it’s not easy: most organisations fail. They fail because, no matter how well intentioned they are, they believe that they can achieve this change within a existing power dynamic, an ongoing fiction that somehow some levers of power still reside with the organisation. They don’t: they are just lodged in people’s heads still, with a little residual life to go. But go they will. There is a diminishing return for outdated and outmoded models of authority and control: the future is Social and the future is here today.

Social Leadership Handbook Cover Art 1

The 2nd Edition of the Social Leadership Handbook is about to be released: you can pre-order your copy here.

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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13 Responses to The Tension Between Formal And Social Leadership

  1. Pingback: The Tension Between Formal And Social Leadership – lifelongeduc

  2. Just pre-ordered! Really looking forward to reading your work offline Julian. Thanks.

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  8. Sarah says:

    Very apt & insightful. We need much more social leadership to overthrow outmoded hierarchical authority which can’t flex to meet the much needed newly emerging distributed systems of transformation in carenecessary

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