Social Leadership: Structural and Social Authority

Social Leadership is not simply another type of power that exists within a formal system: it’s a reputation led authority that exists outside the system. Whilst an organisation can give you a role, a position within a structural hierarchy, only your community can award you reputation, and grant you Social Authority within a community. But whilst different, the two types of power are not independent: to be truly effective, we need to understand the relationship between the two types of power, understand how they contrast, enhance, or diminish, each other, and understand how we gain one, and earn the other.

Social Leadership: Structural and Social Authority

Organisations are structures of power and control, even well meaning, brilliant ones: when you are recruited, promoted, or elevated, you are granted explicit, and implicit, forms of power, and gain an ability to apply certain types of consequence. Social systems, tribes, and communities, are also structures of power and control, but utilising different types of power and consequence: formal systems apply structural, codified power and consequence, social systems, apply social and reputation based power and consequence, often based on membership, conformity, and exclusion. Both are powerful, but both are different.

Social Leadership 100 - types of power

It’s possible to be awarded, and to hold, Social Authority, even when we have no formal power whatsoever, but in the context of Organisational Development, we are often working with leaders who have some level of formal power. The opportunity for them to become more effective therefore sits in their ability to understand, and develop, a capability in both: to understand the reach and effectiveness of their awarded formal power, and to build capacity in nurturing and utilising their Social Authority effectively.

I’ve surveyed groups in various contexts, to explore just how much of the time they feel that they are effective using their formal, or their social, power alone. The results vary somewhat by sector, but typically leaders report that over 80% of the time, they are effective primarily through the application of ‘social’ power, through the consensus of their teams, communities, peers, and colleagues. It’s typically just a minority of the time that individuals feel that they are effective solely through the application of formal power, telling people to just do something, or suffer the consequences.

But those figures may be disingenuous: the Social Authority that they wield is not abstract, it’s framed and contextualised by their formal authority. Formal power sets the context, but Social Authority enables us to draw upon different capabilities of the community. That’s why we need both: exceptional formal leadership, and leadership development opportunities, and exceptional Social Leadership, and opportunity to develop, rehearse, and refine that.

All this happens against the backdrop of the Social Age: an ecosystem that sees a general erosion of the reach of formal power, and the extension, and expansion, of the Social.

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Moroccan Diary: Empowered

I’ve led a hard life’, said Mustafa, not seeking sympathy, but more as a statement of fact. And i could believe it. In his mid fifties, we were talking in the earth and wood riad that he had built, himself, over the last ten years, and where i was spending the night.

Morocco Diary - Riad

I came to meet Mustafa, near the Atlas mountains, at the start of my journey through Morocco, and i met him through Expedia. Or perhaps, more accurately, i should say that i met him through TripAdvisor, through his reputation.

Mustafa had worked to get to college, then worked abroad, in the tourist industry: he had acted as a tour guide, a rep for larger organisations, and in various hotels and parts of the hospitality sector. Ten years ago, he became more focussed, and worked abroad, away from his family, to earn money in long stints, before coming home and using that money, and his own skills, to build the riad. As we settled down to dinner, he had been up and running for just a few months, but already was building the reputation and online presence that took me to his front door.

The switch for Mustafa has been from working within an economic system, controlled by others, to operating as a node within an economic system, empowered and enabled by his reputation. he has reclaimed his own utility, and is driving value in his own brand.

The impression i had from him was not one of hard work an grind, but rather of passion: we talked at length about sustainability, about how he would not heat the riad with wood fires, which would drive further deforestation (a big issue in Morocco), but rather with small, individual, gas fires. He talked about his debates and arguments with local politicians and leaders, about the direction of tourism in Morocco, his frustration at the lack of vision, and how nearby Spain, with similar climate, vastly outcompetes for the tourist dollar.

His own riad is a manifestation of that passion, but i suspect would not have been possible even ten years ago. He has put in the miles, and now is building an independent reputation, enabled, and empowered, by the global, democratised, technology, of the large travel sites. And he is not alone.

The Social Age sees a general shift away from commoditised, identikit, replicable, experiences, towards personable, passionate, and unique ones. In fact, out of all my fifteen nights in Morocco, only one night was spent in a chain hotel, and that was a local chain with only two hotels. The rest were all local, all individual, and all accessible solely through reputation, reviews, and charisma.

This connectivity is at the heart of the Social Age: it allows those things that were historically local, to build out globally. Brands and ideas that previously would have struggled to go beyond local reputation and word of mouth now travel globally, and at scale. The last project that i funded on Kickstarter did not just beat it’s goal, it bust it a hundredfold, because it ‘caught fire’. The democratising, connective technology, enabled it to build a global community.

For someone like Mustafa, i am excited: his conversation about sustainability is held from a global perspective, and it’s matched by his desire or legacy. He talks about how his children will have a sustainable business to own, and not one that can scale. He was very clear about this: he could have built bigger, he could have pushed further, but at the current size, he can take about sixteen guests on any given night, and he can host them as guests, not as ‘units’. He can provide a unique experience, and ensure it is experienced at the quality that will enable him to build that reputation ever further.

I enjoyed the experience of staying with, and talking to, Mustafa greatly, not simply in itself, but as part of the wider conversation about the rise of the connective transnationals: the organisations that are effectively replacing government as the infrastructure providers, and replacing traditional organisations as ‘career’ spaces. They enable people like Mustafa to invest their energy, their cognitive surplus, their potential, into something that they can, themselves, retain a control over, and benefit from. And that is exciting.

Not without risk: the dichotomy between those who are enabled and empowered, and those who are not, is growing ever wider. Another aspect of my time in Morocco that is very much on my mind, and which will explore tomorrow.

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Morocco Diary: Reflections

You can leave the Sahara but, it appears, it never leaves you. I spent an hour yesterday scouring the seams and pockets of my waxed canvas bag, trying to dislodge the fine grained sand, seemingly stuck by glue to every surface. My own little dunes. To little avail. I guess i’ll get used to dusting off the keyboard of my ipad every time i use it eventually.

Morocco Diary - canvas bag

The grains landed there as i watched the sun set, half way through my fifteen day trip through Morocco, my first visit to Africa. It was a rare moment of stationary calm in a trip that took me to a new bed every night. Sunset itself is a transition time, so it feels appropriate to start a reflection on Morocco as the sun passes over the horizon: Morocco made me welcome, divesting me of some stereotypes, whilst reinforcing others.

It’s always hard to retune, to re-contextualise from one culture to another, fast: day one and i left my own home in the morning, to walk over the threshold of an old riad in Fez that evening. One morning i left my house, via Starbucks, to catch the train to the airport, the next morning i threw open the door to see an old man drive three donkeys past me, each laden with rugs and vegetation. It didn’t require wild imagination to sense the differences here. The smell was enough to do that.

The heart of Fez certainly felt timeless: devoid of right angles, a maze of interlocked narrow streets, uneven textures underfoot, and the bustle of the souks and streets all around me. It was the best of my expectations made real. But easy to be blinded by the nearby truth: surrounding the ancient walls is a space tenfold the size, where more modern design aesthetics intrude, and more global brands invade. I passed Pizza Hut, Burger King, and McDonalds on the drive into the city, and everywhere, everywhere, Coca Cola: painted signs faded by the sun, in both Roman and Arabic script, throughout the country. Throughout the world.

Fez allowed me to tune in, but as i left the next day, a sense of the mundane pervaded: my Renault Megane felt very much in place on the freshly made road. Other modern cars, BMWs, Peugeots, and Dacias were everywhere. Sure, they were matched by ancient Datsuns with collapsed suspension, and beaten up Mercedes taxis that i bet had a million miles on the clock, but much of the visual grammar of ‘traffic’ was familiar. I’m not sure what i had expected, but modern cars make anywhere look the same, and stole some of the mystery away.

Not that they had the space to themselves: i rapidly adapted to roadways filled with donkey carts, mules, horses, the occasional monkey, cows, sheep, goats, indomitable elderly ladies, and frequent motos heading alternatively the right way, or the wrong way, down my lane. Driving in Morocco is nothing if not lively, although far, far, more polite and friendly than my experience would have been in London. I only got flashed and honked in anger once in my entire 3,000km trip.

Cultural grammar describes those things, those established ways of acting, the expected sequence of events, that we become familiar with, and adapt to, within our own culture. Part of the experience of travel is to be exposed to new grammars, but with it comes an underlying sense of displacement that takes time to settle. Simple acts, like buying a coffee, meeting and greeting someone, or paying for dinner, take on a new and slightly unfamiliar tempo and structure.

This is one of the things i love about exploration, and one of the greatest privileges of my life, the opportunity to be immersed with, exposed to, these differences. Some of my favourite Moroccan conversations took place where we shared no language, except gestures and smiles, or broken french and fractured Arabic, but where our shared intent shone through.

The last month has been busy for me: touring the North of England, a pass through London, one night at home, then into the heart of technology in Silicon Valley, and global telecoms in rural Germany, then straight to Africa for a holiday. I’ve spent two nights in my own bed. I remember learning something when on an expedition, about twenty years ago: we were hiking for a few weeks, pitching a tent in a new space every night. Walking every day. I noticed that, at the end of the day, as i started to seek out a space to pitch the tent, i was acutely aware of how ‘strange’ spaces felt, how some places felt ‘good’ to camp, whilst others felt not unsafe, but not quite right. It felt like an ancient instinct. But the next morning, after pitching my tent and spending the night, every space felt like ‘home’. Home, it turned out, is a notion we can construct remarkably fast. Even in just one night. The sense of belonging that you take with you when you travel is created by the people you meet, and your own willingness to be held in the kindness of strangers.

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When we write our story of the past, we memorialise our journey, and this act of ossification is as true for organisations as it is for individuals. We chose one narrative as dominant, selectively filtering to give a coherence that may not always have been apparent when we were caught in the storm. The gift of retrospect is presumed foresight and situational clarity, perceived in hindsight. Objects in the rear view mirror may not look exactly like the ones we drove past.


Mythology is important: it houses our identity, cultural cohesion, sense of purpose, validation of self and organisation, and provides a sense of belonging and momentum. We feel that we are both connected to our past and, potentially, part of the mythology to be written in the future.

But there is a thing about mythology, a thing about memorials: they may well have great power, and persist, but they often do so long after the things that they cherish have gone.

It’s important that we write our mythology with pride, but equally important to rewrite it, adapt it, and leave some notions behind. Celebrated and respected, but recognised as no longer current. Certainly from an organisational perspective, the risk of myth is significant, trapping us in silken bonds, constraining us from the change we need in the present.

Perhaps one way we can moderate myth is through dynasties: the dynastic organisation is understood: the social hero CEO, the Age of Establishment, the Age of Expansion, ultimately, if we are not self aware and dynamic, the Age of Decline. A dynasty would not simply be the tenure of an individual, but rather a movement, at scale. It must represent a systemic adaptation.

If culture describes the actions of every individual, in the moment, perhaps it’s surrounded by, framed by, the mythology, and grounded within a dynasty. So in our everyday, we do not necessarily consider these things, but the forces of mythology may provide some hard edges around culture, and may permeate the conversations, and everyday actions, that make that culture real.

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Words About Learning: Belief

My desire to make something true, does not make it so. Belief is a powerful force, and sits beneath some of our conception of how the world is, how it works. We learn, we form abstractions, we make leaps of faith, and believe that something is true. And then we sometimes try to rationalise the evolving reality against that stated and held belief.

Words About Learning - Belief Graffiti

To learn is, in some ways, to start by challenging ourselves: to recognise that our belief in our understanding of the world may be outdated. It may be something held in hope, not truth. I sometimes see graffiti that lies weathered, fading, a story that is coming undone. All our ideas, our beliefs, are subject to this weathering. If we are brave, we remake the picture, painting it anew, not grasping to the faded image of the past.

Words About Learning is an occasional series of posts, written from airport lounges, at the end of busy days.

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The New World of Work is Not Work

Yesterday i ran the first of six sessions in California, exploring aspects of the Social Age: we started by exploring where we go ‘Beyond Organisations’, and today i will move into ‘The Storytelling Leader’, before tackling ‘Innovation & Disruption’, and ‘Communities’ later in the week. These reflective days are reasonably unstructured, Explorer sessions, looking not at the organisations that we have today, but more broadly at the type of organisation we may need to build for tomorrow. The Socially Dynamic Organisation will bring a more diversified strength, a deep capacity to change, it will be lighter weight, both from the point of view of size, but also hierarchy and control.

Organisational Design in the Social Age

I don’t believe that we should abandon formal structure and control: indeed, the opposite may apply. We should strengthen and optimise it. But we should unhitch power from position: when people nest within structures of power, they perpetuate those structures, because to change them undoes their narrative, unravels their power. The key change we should make is to enable, facilitate, and empower, the social structures that sit alongside it: we should not simply recognise this social expertise within, and on the terms of, the formal organisation, but instead should create more equal relationship: maintain a dynamic tension between the two systems.

Dynamic Tension

In many of the organisations that i spend time in, there is already a deep understanding of the need for change, a desire to explore new principles of leadership, of organisational design, of control, but often they ultimately struggle to adapt, held constrained by the very strength that made them great today.

One aspect i’m exploring this week is that of ‘two dimensions of change’. We are not just facing known challenges, within known ecosystems, to which we must adapt. We are not just facing known competitors within known markets. We are not just finding, hiring, and training, the best people in a known and understood labour market. We are, in fact, disrupted.

Today, alongside this known system (which we know how to adapt within, and respond towards), we face broader challenges, ecosystem challenges. Disruption, when it comes, it often asymmetric, unknown, and fast. Our markets are changing, not necessarily in shape (although with the emerging Internet of Things, they are that), but also nature: the shift from ‘transactional’, to ‘relationship’ based engagement is something that many brands have build great value upon.

But with relationship comes responsibility: Organisations are not entities that float above society, they are mechanisms of, expressions of, society, and, most importantly, increasingly accountable to society.

Consider that for a moment: organisations that are used to being accountable to shareholders and the law (and they are still accountable in these spaces) are increasingly accountable to their social communities. Indeed, the challenges faced by Uber, and increasingly by Facebook, are not strictly formal and quantifiable, they are social and emotional. The breaches we see may involve data, but they are judged on trust.

And all of this takes place against the evolved ecosystem of the Social Age: the second degree of change.

Organisational Design in the Social Age

The illustration above is a sketch of this new world. Is it right? I doubt it, but equally, i doubt it is entirely wrong.

Without a doubt, the advent of socially collaborative technology, globally, at scale, has led to new nesting places for emergent tribal structure: trust bonded groups, striving for shared purpose, providing foundational social belonging and community value.

Learning 2017

In parallel, education is on the verge of disruption: all of our old models were based upon outdated views of knowledge, and the geolocation of expertise. And today, both of those views can be challenged: the knowledge that we engage with most often is increasingly dynamic, co-created, adaptive, and tribal, held within these very practitioner structures that we feel most engaged with. Again, we still need the ‘old’, but we certainly need the ‘new’.

And the technology companies, who hold the vast and interconnected communities, are in a prime position to disrupt in this space. They are pouring money into immersive VR, which will provide experiential learning spaces, dynamic collaborative ones. They can produce high value interactive learning, in a global market with revenues that will make this attractive, and they understand that experience is everything. When i went to school, they were still using blackboards. And they’ve not come all that far since.

But this disruption in education will not simply be disruption of a known system, within a known space, to a known model. I suspect that we will see the emergence of lifelong engagement, the new ‘universities’ will not be physical structures, but rather engaged communities, providing ongoing, relevant, grounded, practice based, development, throughout our careers. They will form the portable community that travels with us throughout our career. Under this model, my ‘university’ would not simply write to me to ask for a donation: they would be engaged in, and invested in, my ongoing performance and success. And why not?

The fractured Social Contract has left us without a career backbone: the organisation you work for may be fantastic, but it’s unlikely to be with you forever, and in any event, the opportunity, and freedom, that you are afforded will often be grudgingly given, and limited in reach. People look beyond their organisation for true opportunity, and that is a tragedy. We hire people because of their brilliance, and then squander that brilliance through outdated notions of control.

It’s into this space that a truly meaningful model of lifelong education will emerge, indeed, aspects of it already have. Just look at Duolingo and Babbel, decimating traditional, location based, models of language learning.

One aspect i’m particularly interested in is the emergence of the new Guilds, although i’m unsure how this will play out. One thing i see clearly is that many organisations are forging intra market entities to look at shared costs around thinks like graduate programmes, and certifications, recognising that they cannot bear the formal costs of these things alone, in a market where people just leave. But this may be a short step taken too late. I suspect we will see the new Guilds emerging as professional bodies with real clout: holding both political power, high loyalty, and contractual power with organisations.

Just look at cyber-security: people in this field are constantly collaborating and competing, outside of any organisational structure. So why not collectivise, at scale, and shift from individual engagement, to Guild engagement? Combined with the evolved models of lifelong learning, and the need for organisations to shed structure in favour of purpose and effectiveness?

Four Aspects of the Socially Dynamic Organisation

I’ve written before about the Socially Dynamic Organisation: indeed, it’s acting as a unifying notion across much of my thinking right now, and will form the heart of my next full book, ‘The Change Handbook’. The notion is that we must explore evolved models of engagement, evolved types of strength. The specific capability of the Socially Dynamic Organisation will be change, achieved through a deep comfort with curiosity, an ability to hold ambiguity, an evolved structure of power, which recognises Social Authority, and a cultural agility.

The cultural agility is not the thing to focus on: it will be an emergent feature of the evolved system. If we adapt leadership, if we adapt learning, if we dis-engineer redundant process, system, and control, then we may create the conditions where this agility emerges.

As i said at the start, i doubt whether this sketch is accurate, but that doubt is matched by certainty that our existing models of Organisational Design, of recognition and reward, of training and development, of education, of professional growth, are outdated.

People are more connected than ever before, and no matter what we do, they are not going to become less connected. Instead, it’s likely that these new, democratised, collectives will establish real power. But i think they will be more than new unions, they will be creative in their own right, not standing in opposition to formal systems, but rather engaged with, and collaborating, alongside them.

This is the opportunity: to explore how we can fairly engage, how we can recognise the opportunity and overcome the constraint which is so often not applied to us from the outside, but rather engineered from within.

I have no doubt that organisations will persist, but whether those are the organisations that we have today, i am far less certain.

Those that survive and thrive will be those that can change: to take their existing strength, to understand the new world, to experiment, and adapt. They will be anchored in fairness, rooted in social justice, actively in service of their communities, and remaining relevant in an evolved world

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Ecosystem change & Organisational Design [part 1]

Where will we go, beyond Organisations? Much Organisational Design today is based upon outdated principles of collectivism, and effect at scale, through hierarchy and control, in a world that sees the democratisation of innovation, a rebalancing of power, and evolved modes of social organisation, disrupting those very systems, often in ways we understand poorly, if at all. We will always have a need for Organisations, but the question is, what will they look like, and can we adapt the behemoths of today, to the dynamic winners of tomorrow?

Organisational Design in the Social Age

In some sense, we can probably characterise the broadest shift as being away from a two party state, to a multi party one: we used to have ‘work’ and ‘not work’, but today, we have a grew space that blends the two. We used to have ‘national’ and ‘international’, but today we have ‘transnational’, and ‘socially global’. We used to have ‘cultural’, and ‘counter cultural’, but today, we rely increasingly on sanctioned subversion, and social engagement, all within the four walls of work. Whatever work is. Whatever the office is. Whatever education is.

Guide to the Social Age 2018

I believe that the full mechanisms of disruption are reasonably clear, at least clear enough for a cursory understanding: collectivism and the rise of social communities wielding structural power (collectivism outside of formal systems, and the ways that social communities can develop political power back into formal systems), a rebalancing of power, away from purely formal, to a mixed model of reputation (we see a general erosion of purely formal power, replaced by more consensual leadership, even slipping into evolved modes of democracy, not all for the good), democratisation of infrastructure (which used to represent power, but now often represents constraint for older organisations, coupled with democratised, on demand, access for social innovators), emergent modes of social organisation (our older models of social organisation, in States, Nations, Churches etc is being eroded by communities of global ideas, communities of aggregated dissent, purpose led etc), cross cultural connectivity at scale (which will be radically enhanced by synchronous translation), and so on.

One view of this change is through modes of social organisation, considering ‘education’, the new ‘guilds’, social ‘tribes’, and future ‘organisations’. At the highest level, the premise would be this: we are likely to see a shift away from formal education being seen as something provided on a national level, predominantly to the young, towards relationships that last a lifetime, provided on a more global basis, and forming something of a continuous backbone to work. Our local tribes will diversify, as the true impacts of collaborative technology, synchronous translation, and narrative artificial intelligence systems bite, providing a new meta culture, and highly trusted network, operating as a home to our sense of ‘being’. The new guilds will emerge as semi professional structures, which not only link into lifelong learning, but gain real political and economic power, holding distributed capability, outside of any formal system, and organisations will themselves reconfigure, to become lighter weight, more adaptive, fully Socially Dynamic. Or at least they will, if they are to survive.

The Socially Dynamic Organisation

These ecosystem factors will lead to a new environment, one which will favour new models of Organisational Design, and actively sub optimise those that resist, and our challenge is not one for the future, but one to face now: how will we develop and refine the culture that can thrive in this new space? It’s unlikely that we will be able to import it, so we will need to grow it, but we cannot grow it if we hold onto the power, structure, and pride, of the past. We can only grow it if we relinquish certain levels of control, and focus on the dual structure, formal and social, of the Socially Dynamic Organisation. It’s taken nearly two hundred years of scientific management to get us into the current space: we had better start experimenting and learning what comes next.

There will be many domain specific challenges around this, not the least of which is the shift from domain specificity to a new generality. The solutions will be enabled by technology, but may be inhibited by IT departments. They will be governed by fairness, but may be constrained by mindless hidebound rule systems. They will be led, but not necessarily by us. Our challenge is to be prepared to change, and most of the constraint we face, as individuals, lies in what we already know, and in organisations, it lies in what we already do.

I’m in California this week, running a series of Explorer sessions, unpacking some of the dynamics that feed into this, so will use the time to expand on each of these areas in turn, and try to set some foundations for the conversation to come.

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