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Applying Social Leadership to Enhance Collaboration and Nurture Communities

Key Takeaways

  • New leadership styles will continue to emerge. As we shift from one paradigm to the next, the effectiveness of leadership will be challenged.  
  • The Social Age seems to have a greater focus on deriving meaning from knowledge rather than the acquisition of it.   
  • The Social Age looks to have been the catalyst for the rise of the social leader. These leaders are purpose-led, usually have no formal authority, and don’t crave power.
  • The application of social leadership is nicely captured by the NET model’s dimensions of Narrative, Engagement, and Technology and the six tenants: Be Curious, Try Learn Try, Share, Be Humble, Tell Stories and, Be Fair and Protect.
  • The beauty of Social Leadership is in its human-centred ethos. It aligns well with some of the original Agile values. Much of what social leaders value are powerful ingredients in helping create the right environment for agility within enterprises. 

Over the course of my 20+ year career journey, I have been privileged to have had many learning opportunities and experiences that helped shape my thinking and encouraged me to seek continual growth, as I transitioned from hands-on engineering roles into the realms of management and leadership. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of leadership and made my fair share of mistakes along the way.  

However, I have always wanted to get better at it, and have stayed committed to that quest.  There are many styles and forms of leadership. In this article we explore social leadership. A form of leadership that has helped me challenge my own views on what leadership truly is and what behaviours can help create collaborative cultures and spaces where learning and meaningful engagement matter the most.   

My journey into this space has been inspired by the work of Julian Stodd, a leading author and researcher in this area, and I have welcomed the opportunity to explore its application in some of my day-to-day work. At the heart of this article is a reminder of the power and positive impact of authentic communication, compelling narrative and building meaningful relationships often through constructs such as communities.    

Defining social leadership

It's not easy to define social leadership as it’s a broad arena. It's a style of informal leadership that helps provoke and bring about change by exploring and leveraging more human-centred forms of engagement. It has a focus on building consensus through strong collaborations and sense-making, often gaining feedback by actively seeking viewpoints from new groups and audiences, usually in the form of communities.  

It is not a replacement for more formal, traditional forms of leadership, but rather a complementary endeavour aimed at bringing about desired outcomes where formal leadership falls short, notably in the Social Age we are in now. This is the era that has emerged from the Digital Age; one where deriving meaning is an important goal for many.  Knowledge is now much more easily obtained thanks to technology, notably mobile devices and faster communication networks.

Characteristics of a social leader

Social leaders have high social capital. What does that mean? Well, it simply means they are able to operate effectively within the societal group or groups they inhabit. This is largely down to the fact that social leaders are very good at relationship building. They tend to also have very strong interpersonal skills. They’ve built their authority through their positive purpose-led actions. This “authority” is reputation-based and tends to grow through their ability to create a great narrative. A narrative they share in an impactful manner through engaging storytelling. In short, they are adept authentic communicators.  

I mentioned purpose-led. Social leaders are usually on a mission of some sort which often centres around improving some aspects of society. When I have delivered talks on this subject previously, I often cite Martin Luther King Jr as an example of someone you could argue displayed the characteristics and behaviours of a social leader. Think of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963 and I’m sure you’ll get the point I’m making here. 

A more recent example would be Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.   Remember the images of Greta at the outset sitting outside her school on her own, which could then later be contrasted with the countless images of her addressing rallies of thousands. To me, that is a clear illustration of the potential of a powerful narrative supporting a purpose-led mission or goal. It was Greta who said, “We (need to) start listening to the science and that we actually start treating this crisis as the crisis it is.” That certainly had me sitting up and paying attention.

One aspect of all of this that really intrigues me is that those who I have just mentioned had no formal authority to do what they did, or continue to do, in the case of Greta. This informal leadership has been built through building deeper or meaningful connections. It’s the shared goal that binds these groups. Their membership growth often also comes from the fact that those who are leading are not doing so for personal gain. This can usually be in stark contrast to formal authority which is more often than not, granted through position. Such forms of leadership are using their position rather than their narrative and messaging to achieve their aims. This is, more and more, proving to be less effective.   

Social leaders tend to do what they are trying to do with a great deal of humility and grace, and a desire to make deep meaningful connections. They don’t crave power or authority, but tend to gain it through their kindness, fairness and integrity.

A moment ago, I mentioned humility and the aim of making more meaningful connections. These ideas are well-aligned to the idea of humble leadership. If you look at the six principles of Humble Leadership, you see the characteristics and behaviours of social leaders weaved within. Building relationships through openness and trust is very important. The two styles have this in common as well as the need for developing cooperative attitudes and skills around group dynamics.   

Lastly, such leaders are very committed to developing new leaders. If this can become a strong network bound by a shared vision, then the narrative will often become amplified by the others in the group. This amplification will increase the chances of success. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world”, said Mahatma Gandhi.

A comparison of leadership styles

Social leadership seems to differ as it is not a form of leadership that is granted, as is often the case in formal hierarchical environments. Organisations that have more “traditional management” structures and approaches tend to grant managers authority, accountabilities and power. Also, as I imagine you have seen, there has been much commentary over the years on the fact that management and leadership are not the same things. Some years ago when I was undertaking the Chartered Manager program with the Chartered Management Institute(CMI), I came across the definition that Management is “doing things right,” whereas leadership is “doing the right thing”.  I find this succinct explanation of the difference refreshing and have continued to use this within my own coaching and mentoring work since.  It feels to me that “doing the right thing” is the modus operandi of the social leader.

Also, we talk a lot about the problems with accidental managers: those who have been promoted into managerial roles, often by having in the past been successful in their technical domains. They are however more often than not, not equipped for management and don’t understand what good leadership looks like. There’s also a good chance that they may not have seen anything which resembles great leadership.  

Social leadership is nurtured through a focus on human-centred behaviours and interactions. These matter deeply to the social leader. I’d take the view that social leadership behaviours are aligned well with the first value of the original Agile manifesto: individuals and interactions over processes and tools. We are still finding ourselves reiterating that it’s not that we don’t value the latter; we just value the former more.  

A lot of the emphasis on servant leadership sits within this value too, in my view. Good servant leaders tend to focus on the needs of others more than their own. Their starting place is as a servant and a desire to be of service. It was of course Robert K. Greenleaf, author of the seminal text on servant leadership, who famously said, “Good leaders must first become good servants”. Social leadership has a similar ethos.

The real difference is actually in their context and when they emerged. Greenleaf’s book was published in the late 70s and was about the introduction of a new paradigm of management and leadership for the Knowledge Age where the focus was on leadership as a service.

Social leadership is an emergent style for the social age. The social age is post the digital age, and the era in which technology’s rapid development has had a profound impact on communication. There has been a shift from just sharing to a greater desire for sense making. 

As an example, within the context of an enterprise, think about when you might run an ideation or discovery session to try to better understand a known problem. The problem itself might be quite widely known and is being shared by different colleagues within a variety of different forums. However, those articulating the problem will typically do so through their own individual lens. Getting those voices together to really understand the problem statement and make sure there is a common understanding prior to developing any action plan is sense-making. It's key to trying to ensure we are solving the right problem and that it is well enough understood. Collaborative technology is also important in this equation, as it is the facilitator for helping open the channels for communication. This has become even more important in the distributed and dispersed working environment many of us still find ourselves in. You may well have dipped your toe in the Mural or Miro waters in an attempt to create collaborative spaces. These are social spaces. The technology itself is not the point, it’s the environment for exploratory conversation we are concerned with. This is of great importance to the social leader.             

Applied social leadership 

I lead an initiative in my day-to-day work which centres around mobilising, socialising and embedding a technology platform across a population of several thousands of engineers, in the banking sector. Initially I hadn’t appreciated it, but as I learnt more about social leadership and some of the typical behaviours and characteristics, I spotted lots of commonalities with my approach to aspects of this work. While I was trying to get this particular initiative off the ground, I was in parallel part of a 12-week storytelling program with the Sea Salt Learning crew and Julian Stodd. It’s Julian’s work in this space that has inspired me and encouraged me to try to deepen my understanding and application of these ideas.  

Julian developed something called the NET model.  It’s three dimensions of Narrative, Engagement and Technology, are the rationale behind its name. It’s a nine stage model which starts with the narrative. This makes complete sense to me. We start with the messages and then we look to share them through compelling storytelling. We want the narrative to land so we take it into different groups, often communities. Here we are seeking clarity and validation, as well as amplification of the key ideas we are trying to socialise. If the messages resonate, the reputation improves and brings with it greater authority. Note that authority is not the aim of the social leader. It is a means to an end.  

Social leaders will focus on co-creation and collaboration to build consensus. As we discussed earlier, good social leaders use their high social capital to spread the message and build the communities around the narrative to help its amplification. The NET model brings this to life and its cyclical nature is a nod to this being an iterative process, in my view.  This is the journey of the social leader and a style of leadership to operate effectively in a world of liberal communication. We need to filter out what is not meaningful to us and hone in on what aligns to our values and purpose. This model helps us explore this objective.

A lot of my efforts in the initiative I mentioned have been in the creation of narrative and storytelling to help raise awareness and educate on the platform’s benefits and the role the technology can play enhancing collaboration, knowledge sharing and knowledge reuse.

I have been building and nurturing a growing community through a vision, mission and set of principles I have developed and socialised within this community as well as more widely across the enterprise. I am trying to help others make a connection, derive meaning and get value. This is an ongoing endeavour and there have been a number of little experiments along the way to aid us in trying to realise the overarching vision. Some examples of experiments we’ve undertaken include communicating user contributions and running small competitions to leverage the built-in game mechanics right through to running drop-in sessions to create safe spaces for ideation, knowledge sharing and building a sense of community. These take ongoing effort and rarely bring success at the first attempt. The NET model reminds us to venture round the loop as we continue to learn what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s key to create the channels to help bring people together, but make it clear their participation is optional and voluntary but very much valued.  

We talked earlier about one aspect of what the NET model talks about which is taking the narrative into informal spaces. These informal spaces often take the form of communities. Within the enterprise these are usually Communities of Practice (CoPs). CoPs tend to form through an identified need of some sort. The need is shared by a group of likeminded people who usually wish to share knowledge amongst themselves as practitioners. Good CoPs tend to evolve as the needs of the group evolve and change. Critically, they evolve through a shared consensus and are driven informally by one or more leaders of the group. Again, these leaders don’t often have any formal authority but are seen to be displaying the behaviours we have touched upon earlier in this article. Within my own enterprise there are countless CoPs and a key ongoing experiment has been for me to build relationships with many of the CoP leads with the aim of nurturing an enterprise-wide network and community.  

We are still realising the benefits and I very much see this as supporting longer-term strategic aims. The benefits seen to-date include the centralisation of knowledge capture and sharing, and new collaborative spaces, as well as greater optimisation in the flow of information. We are gathering quantitative and qualitative data aligned to some OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). The platform is bringing together Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) from across our global enterprise, cutting across some traditional silos. An enhanced collaborative culture continues to develop from week to week as the community grows and relationships develop.

Increasing agility in organizations

I continue to observe that success in organisations often comes from clear and timely communication and having environments that encourage and nurture impactful collaboration. Social leadership is often about doing the right things, as we have discussed. Social leaders tend not to accept the status quo and believe that things can always be improved. They are the ones that thrive in the Social Age as they embrace change and understand that it is the only constant. Their relationship with knowledge is also constantly evolving and they strive to demonstrate this through their behaviours, as well as socialise this attitude more widely. If successful, this can have a very positive impact on organisational culture and increased agility. It’s about trying to do what matters and makes a difference.  

I think organisational agility comes from a hyperfocus on continuous improvement as well as  creating a sustainable operating rhythm and a socially collaborative environment to help realise it. This feels like a good point at which to introduce the six tenants of Social Leadership. 

They are a vital ingredient to success in the application of this style of leadership. A social leader will embrace the six tenants: Be curious, Try Learn Try, Share, Be Humble, Tell Stories and, Be Fair and Protect.   

I undertook an exercise to consider whether there had been any notable examples of practices that aligned well under these six “principles” on the community initiative I described earlier.

My reflections on this lead me to the view that if you are creating an experimental test-and-learn culture and have a willingness to respectfully question, whilst humbly reminding your stakeholders that you don’t hold all the answers but are committed to the exploratory journey, you are embracing social leadership behaviours.   

Exploring the role and value of the six tenants has proven to be a worthwhile reflective exercise and has helped surface a number of planned improvements; in a manner, not dissimilar to what any good retrospective should do.  

Any organisation looking to stay competitive and relevant within its marketplace should look to its purpose and lead with that. Social leaders will embrace that purpose, if values align,  and through the application of the six tenants help build solid foundations for collaboration, innovation and continuous learning within the organisation. 

The positive by-product will be an increased agility.   

What I have learned

Personally, I feel like I have been on a real journey in my managerial and leadership roles over the years. It sounds cliché, I know but when I reflect on this stuff that’s how I feel.

Exploring social leadership has been an eye-opener for me and I feel it aligns extremely well with the people-centred agile many of us are still trying to help coach within organisations. I believe it has added some new tools to my growing toolbox.

The value of good collaborative environments cannot be overstated, in my view. I think it takes a lot of effort, skill, and perseverance to create such spaces and truly see them help deliver impactful outcomes.  

You need to be open, curious and not afraid to fail. I think trust continues to be a real challenge in many businesses and a lack of it really hinders agility. 

If you are experimenting and learning constantly, you are most certainly not failing.  I have learnt that this is the narrative we need to amplify and continue to coach if we want to see valuable outcomes and affect positive transformational change.        

About the Author 

Sathpal Singh operates at the intersection of Engineering and Agile, with a focus on people, culture, visual storytelling and communities. Alongside his day job in the banking sector, Singh is currently organiser at Future of Work Scotland Meetup,  chair of the BCS Agile Methods group, advisor at Access Agile festival, and sits on the CMI Scotland board.  He has also co-founded a new podcast called Making Community. You can reach him at @sathpalLinkedIn and visualsath.

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