A Social Age Calls For Social Leadership

Yesterday in Utrecht, Netherlands, I had the privilege of kicking off a panel discussion on the future of comms and PR as part of CDay, the annual conference of the Dutch communications professional association, Logeion. Seven hundred communicators from Dutch businesses, NGOs, agencies and government offices filled an auditorium for the panel that included Inge Massen from DSM, Peter Steere from MSL, and moderated by the Dutch journalist Frenk van der Linden.

Here are my opening notes as promised, and I’ll post separately on the wider conversation that included the need for purpose (Inge’s theme) and the power of technology (Peter’s) to revitalise our craft.

The topic I would like to raise is one that I hope is not controversial or in opposition to the suggestions to be made by the other panellists, but rather one that might help make their suggestions more plausible.

I believe we as communicators need to embrace a new kind of leadership, because the old styles of leadership are beginning to fail. We have for the past 150 years or more applied what might be called industrial leadership – leadership built for an industrial age. Business – and society around it – has been built on the premises of manufacturing, distribution and market expansion, and it has engendered leadership built on corresponding premises: authority, hierarchy and rules devised at the top and enforced downward.

Not everyone has agreed with these systems, but it’s hard to say they have failed. On most measures, for most people, life has gotten better.

But I believe the age of industrial leadership is coming to a close, as the industrial age itself comes to a close. Our next age will be less about making things cheap and selling them at a profit – less about stuff, or the what – and more about how and why we interact with each other as teams and humans.

And the new age, whatever we choose to call it, is upon us. I’ve been calling it the Social Age, because I think it reflects a world more intimately and intricately connected than we could have ever imagined before. My thinking is highly influenced by a British social scientist named Julian Stodd, and I strongly recommend you follow his blog or read his books on the topic.

In the social age, leadership will be a lot less about the authority granted to us by way of experience, seniority or simply by the structures above us, and more from what is given to us by those around or “under” us. This puts a premium on skills or mind sets like humility, fairness and social capital – all of the “soft” skills of yesterday become the urgent requirements for tomorrow’s leaders.

I think this kind of leadership transformation will apply to all sectors and industries, and in the supportive aspects of our roles as communicators, we’ll be asked to help manage the transitions of our bosses and clients from one world to the next.

But I think there is a more urgent and primary need for us as communicators and leaders in our own right. There’s never been a more important time for us, the interpreters and connectors. The world seems to be shedding its old industrial skin, with no idea of what will follow or what the new rules will be. This puts a lot of responsibility on us to understand the perspectives of all of the different stakeholders on any given question and to come up with ways to translate them.

The trends outlined in the Logeion report summarise these needs nicely – balancing networks and bubbles, partnering with data specialists for spot-on and on-the-spot engagement, using experience and imagination to communicate new ideas, and especially – most importantly in my mind – creating shared value with our stakeholders.

All of this and more will be required of the leaders of the new social age, and my pitch is for us to lead the way.