The Nature of Leadership

Leadership is an endemic term, more often used to describe a desired outcome than a specific set of skills or behaviours, and more often describing those things that we like or aspire to than to those that we actually experience, or even need.

Into the Social Age

Are leaders the oil in the machine, or the people who tell you to build the machine? Or the person who helps you when the machine breaks? Or the person who sells the machine out from under you and leaves you without a job? Or all of those things?

In the Industrial Age, leadership was substantially a matter of resource management: where is the coal, where is the iron ore, who will light the furnace, and who can carry the load? The Industrial Organisation was build upon collectivism (where leadership defined the skills and built out the structures of collectivity), conformity (where leaders defined the systems of control), and replicability at scale (where we created more leaders to lead the sub units). Leadership, in this sense, was domain based, hierarchical, substantially directive, and in some sense little more than an invisible additional cog in the machine.

Through the Knowledge Age we stretched the supply chains, globalised, virtualised, and became more streamlined, agile, and efficient. Or at least efficient at extracting profit. Leadership maybe became more connective: between entities, as well as more enabling, to streamline those entities. But substantially still a model of systemised control, domain based, and unequivocally formal.

Through every age there have been leaders within formal systems who have either led with, or been sensitive to, notions of fairness and equity beyond their simply legal or formal role: indeed, possibly most leaders have acted in that way, but of course we may tend to be fair to those who we know more than to a whole system. We tend to be fair where it can be seen more so than in silence and the dark.

The context of the Social Age revises once more the nature of leadership, but more importantly the context, and mechanisms of it.

Our more transparent and fluid social systems act substantially to balance power, between formal systems and individuals, between Organisations and social communities, between the one and the many, if the ‘one’ speaks with an authentic voice.

One could consider how two dominant types of power have been effected by this: consensus power, and oppositional. The consensus power of social movement, seeking to drive change, is radically transformed by connected social media and the democratised storytelling of the Social Age. Almost everything about our modern ecosystem permits and mitigates for the formation of rapidly emergent and responsive social communities. So those with common goal can come together with ease, and find a compelling voice. Oppositional power means that those with no consensus view, but who nonetheless are united in opposition to dominant power, can also come together: so some communities may be consensus based and oppositional (against an existing model), whilst others may be consensus based but not in opposition (in support of a new model), and yet others may be oppositional, but without consensus (but definitely against your model).

This, and other ways, in which power flows both more smoothly, and rapidly, through social systems, changes everything, not least through the ways that it blows back up the system and impacts onto all the models of leadership that have dominated thus far.

The hierarchy and domains of the formal system are the foundation of formal leadership power: they legitimise it.

Legitimacy is an important concept for leadership: without it, we may have an ability to move things, but without resilience. Illegitimate power cannot thrive in a transparent and connected system.

Throughout all our previous iterations and contexts of leadership, hierarchy and power have dominated, and legitimacy has been held by the application of exclusion from the system itself should you disagree: exile, unemployment, poverty. Money and security are the natural pillars of a formal and dominant system.

But the context of the Social Age changes all of this too: whilst social systems do not exhibit clear formal structure, the nonetheless have fluid social ones, which tend to be multi layered and contextual, and whilst they lack financial currency, they trade in others: trust, pride, respect, reputation, generosity, and so on. And they are legitimate, but with care.

The legitimacy, as i described it, of formal systems is not God given, nor a law of nature, but rather fits within the dominant narrative of society that we choose to subscribe to: so ultimately it is a fictional type of power, backed up by state or Organisational sponsored violence to others. Do as we say, or face exclusion from the structures of the market that keep you safe, warm, and fed.

The legitimacy of social systems, Social Leadership in my parlance, is similarly fictional, although founded upon different stilts. On the positive side, the foundations of Social Leadership are generally liberal and permissive in nature, although arguably do not need to be so (there is an ongoing tension in my own work as i recognise that Social Leadership is not good leadership, but rather a form of leadership with the potential to do good if we so choose – so not different to formal leadership, but rather applied and relevant in a different space).

There is specific risk in social systems too: they are legitimised by consensus, but again not by a God given right, or any natural law, so legitimacy is essentially a tribal function, so inherently may be exclusive and prosecutorial in nature. Social Leadership may simply permit similar models of behaviour to those exhibited by the Social Leader, whilst ignoring or outlawing other flavours.

One one level, i try to reconcile this by understanding that formal and Social Leadership exist in a Dynamic Tension, alongside each other: formal leadership within these evolved formal systems, and Social Leadership within these more emergent and empowered social ones. Both imperfect, but in a new balance of power that, potentially, provides us an enhanced potential to get or be the leader that we want.

Power without legitimacy is just thuggery, so it is worth noting that the legitimacy of most forms of Organisational power, be they formal or social, is purely consensual. Held within the formalised, but fictitious systems, or society. Leadership will not be good unless we make it so.

The context of the Social Age is an emergent one, and possibly one that will never settle: whilst the common mode of definition of historic ages was primarily structural (resources, geographies, infrastructure, finance, and so on), the definition of the Social Age is not (community, power, opportunity, curiosity, fairness, and so on). Arguably the Social Age represents a philosophy more than an organising principle, but if society is a fictional entity, then a philosophy may get us further than a system or process, if we play it right.

At heart, my argument is this: that the nature of leadership has evolved, and the context through which it flows, the models of legitimacy, and the context of application. In a new type of world, we will need new types of Organisation, led in new ways, and earning both our engagement and trust to do so.

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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5 Responses to The Nature of Leadership

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