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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Leading while everyone's watching

Question: Through the effective use of online social media, a small group of political amateurs were able to organize and instigate street demonstrations across Egypt that now threaten to topple the Mubarak regime. How does their success change our notions of what leadership in the Internet age is all about?

Savvy leaders know that everyone in their organization is watching them. Now with the proliferation and popularity of social media, everyone in the world can be watching too. It is not the proverbial Big Brother they fear, it's millions of little brothers and sisters armed with smartphones that can take pictures and videos and disseminate them worldwide in minutes.

Dictators deserve the scrutiny; social media from China to the Middle East is revealing the discontent with strong-arm governments that favor those in power at the expense of those without it. Social media can be an accelerant to change, but whether it can bring about democracy and economic prosperity remains to be seen.

Social media is more well entrenched here at home. Consumers have used it as a means of expressing dissatisfaction. Recall the case of Dave Carroll, the musician who did a music video about the way his guitar was damaged by careless baggage handling. It went viral in days, forcing United Airlines to apologize for its negligence and make restitution. More common are customer complaints that ripple through social media sites creating a wave of nasty publicity for companies.

So what can leaders do to lead in the age when social media is not only ubiquitous but also perceived to be more credible than mainstream media? Here are some suggestions.

One, lead with integrity. Of course no leader will admit a lack of integrity; but as we witnessed in the financial meltdown of 2008, many senior executives in the financial community were managing their enterprises with little regard to sound risk management and instead putting their own self interests first. Never assume integrity is a bedrock principle until you live it. Everyday. And insist that everyone else in the organization does likewise.

Two, be transparent. Assume everyone is watching, because they are. Leaders need to be open and honest with those they lead. They need to explain their actions and hold themselves accountable. One executive I've come to respect is Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies. His leadership life is an open book, so much so that he posts his own 360 performance evaluations online for anyone in the company to read. As a CEO, he regards himself as responsible for managing the company so it can succeed.

Three, befriend social media. It makes no sense to fear social media. The challenge is to understand it so you can make it work for you rather than against you. Find ways to use social media to connect with stakeholders in new and different ways. Some senior executives write blogs about what they and their companies are doing. Others use Twitter and Facebook to disseminate their views.

The trick is to do more than produce content, such as advertising and public relations; the challenge is to connect with stakeholders in ways that are meaningful. That means listening, responding, understanding and reacting in ways that demonstrate you get what others are saying and you will consider their ideas.

These suggestions are for starters. Remember too that in our age of social media, just as in every age, bad news travels more quickly and is often believed more readily than good news. That is life. No leader can change that perception.

What leaders can change is how they respond. Seeking to distance oneself from bad news makes a leader look small. Using it as an opportunity to make amends makes a leader seem human and compassionate.

Leadership never was, nor never will be, for the faint of heart. Today good leaders also need a strong stomach to cope with what they cannot control, as they seek to do what is right in a world where everyone is watching.

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By John Baldoni

 |  February 7, 2011; 3:48 PM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The events in the Egypt definitely demonstrate the capacity of social media and the internet to empower the people. Current and aspiring leaders must take these new instantaneous and unashamedly honest social factors into account. Good leaders cannot ignore their followers, their wishes, and ultimately the perception of those followers and the Internet Age will continue to give more power back to the followers to control their leaders. Mr. Baldoni's emphasis on integrity, transparency, and embracing social media is dead-on. Paradoxically, I believe his savvy answer to a new age issue is a derivation of an old view on leadership. The Founding Fathers acted and espoused the vey suggestions Mr. Baldoni is roviding. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and, above all, John Adams, knew that the nation and the world were watching them. They acted accordingly, maintaining as much integrity as possible, making the views and motives of their causes transparent and they embraced the media of the age. Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and most of the Founding Fahers wrote dozens of letters esposing their views and actions. Mr. Baldoni is correct. The key to leadership in the internet era is classical republican virtue.

Posted by: DannyCohen | February 7, 2011 8:34 PM
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