Monday, May 18, 2009

Lead Your (Social) Network

Your personal and professional networks can provide you with the unique opportunity to lead people. If you have not done so, take stock of these networks, understanding their composition (i.e., who is in them) as well as where the connections you have can contribute to your success as a leader.

I was recently directed to a website replete with inspiration: TED Ideas worth spreading. On TED, one can explore a vast trove of speeches by figures who head industries and all else. I came across a speech by Seth Godin that grabbed my attention. (If you have marketing experience, you might recognize Godin for coining the term, "permission marketing.")

I recommend watching all 17:23 minutes of his speech, loosely titled, The Tribes We Lead. Godin struck a chord with me, alluding to networks (a.k.a., tribes), and how leading them can translate into the spread of ideas. Rested on this concept, he argues to his audience, is their chance to boldly assume a position of leadership.

None of us is immune to the powerful phenomenon that is social networking. As surely as you are reading this sentence now, you have participated in some form of networking online. Even if social networking is not your bag, you have at least browsed Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

The explosion in social networking allows you to accelerate the number of people with whom you regularly connect. Social networking allows you to organize individuals around a single interest. In a recently published article in Fast Company, How Chris Hughes Helped Launch Facebook and the Barack Obama Campaign, there is a lesson in how such organization can develop on the broadest of levels.

The best part about it is that you can actually choose the network you want to lead. To try it out, visit Ning or Twibes. At either site, you can instantly whip up a group of like-minded individuals to follow you, provided the content and direction you contribute has meaning and relevance. Whenever before could you so quickly assemble and sustain your own networks?

In his latest blog entry, Empowering Natural Leaders in ‘Facebook Generation’ Ways, Gary Hamel notes “Natural leaders today have the means to challenge ossified and change-resistant power structures. Thanks to the reach of the Web, a lowly but brilliantly effective leader can mobilize followers across a global organization and beyond—by writing an influential blog, by using that notoriety to get a platform at industry events, by hosting a Web-based discussion on a hot topic, by building an online coalition of similarly-minded individuals, by disseminating a provocative position paper to hundreds or thousands of fellow employees, and by using email to ensure that supporters show up at key meetings.”

So the digital age might have created more opportunities to lead, but will it create better leaders? Our leaders will look different, perhaps younger (see Chris Hughes and his Facebook-founding brethren). There will be people who are perceived as effective leaders because they start a “movement,” to use Godin’s term, but I contend that starting a movement does not necessarily mean you are an effective leader.

While on a relative basis our networks have increased, some of us have become lazy, relying less on interpersonal skills to connect with our "offline" networks. While we know more people, and much about them, we are, in many cases, less intimately connected than ever before.

Your "offline" connections instill and sustain the trust between you and your networks, and ultimately, your leadership is best tried among those who you know personally.

New opportunities to lead will come to you in the form of your social networks. If appropriately capitalized upon, these opportunities will lead to movements, which will then be carried on as sustainable ideas into the offline world, and it is there where the mettle of a true leader gets tested.

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