How will the Internet change leadership?
— Octavian Pantis, Bucharest, Romania
Profoundly — but not entirely. Indeed, not in one aspect that matters a lot.
Let us start with the profoundly parts, however, because if they haven’t affected you as a leader by now, they are sure to in the rapidly approaching future.
The first concerns one of the responsibilities most often assigned to?leadership-writ-large, which is the transmission of mission and values. Pre-Internet, leaders would typically create the organization’s mission and values with their top team, and then commit untold hours of meetings, speeches and walking around to spread the “gospel”.
Jack and Suzy Welch
For their part, the receivers of the mission and values — that is, the employees — would hear the word and put it into action. In most companies, input was allowed and even encouraged, but few mechanisms existed to capture either positive or negative ideas from far below and deep within.
The Internet changes all that. For years now, even low-level employees have been able to reach their leaders simply by writing an email but, increasingly, employees are actually able to organize on company blogs, wikis, online forums and even social networking sites to give their messages urgency and heft.
A functional team — perhaps located thousands of miles from the mother ship — can advocate for a change in suppliers or warn of a competitive manoeuvre that no one in charge seems to be worried about. An entire factory floor can call for the ouster of a manager who, unbeknownst to headquarters, has been a long time expert at kissing up and kicking down. The Internet, in other words, ushers in a whole new level and scope of employee engagement.
Leaders should welcome this development, and most do, but it would be a mistake to ignore its consequences. Once employees engage you by speaking out, albeit electronically, they expect you to engage back. Indeed, it can be just as damaging for a leader not to respond to feedback as it is not to ask for it at all.
In the old days, layers of management filtered out too many good ideas from below, but they also filtered out the nattering. In the era of Internet communities, leaders will have to find, largely on their own, ways to process the good and the bad alike.
A second important change wrought by the Internet concerns the leader’s critical responsibility to see around corners — to anticipate coming economic events and market trends and adjust for them. In the past, such foresight came from a mixture of intelligence, experience, good advice and as much data as you could reasonably get your hands on.
Obviously, the change rests with the last of these: The Internet — with its bloggers, user communities, newsletters and the like — can drown you in data about customers and competitors, not to mention everything else under the sun. Some data is totally useful, some total nonsense.
For leaders, the challenge will be avoiding the energy sink of sorting it all out. Fresh and reliable information is always worth the time to find and analyse but, ultimately, seeing around corners will forever involve a measure of insight conjoined with pattern recognition or, put another way, gut instinct.
Which brings us to the one aspect of leadership that the Internet will not change in any measure, because it cannot. Real leaders touch people. They get in their skin, filling their hearts with inspiration, courage and hope. They share the pain at times of loss and are there to celebrate the wins.
Sure, the Internet allows leaders to write personal emails or “Let’s take the hill” missives on the home page. But, to rally the team, you need to see, hear and feel the team, and let them do the same back at you.
This point has not been lost on the Internet-erati of the world. In fact, we were recently at an information technology conference in which we tried software being developed to replicate the kind of human interactions we just described. Without a doubt, it was cool stuff but, with every mouse click, we kept thinking, “Wouldn’t stopping by someone’s office for a conversation take care of this problem faster and better?”
We don’t want to take this point too far, though. Yes, a leader’s touch will forever be essential. But, to your question, in the future, the best leaders will combine touch with the ability to quickly sort, assess and seize the power of all the ideas the Internet brings and the voices it unleashes. And that will change business for everyone.
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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city.
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