How does social media influence leadership attributes and how should leaders react?


The way people work changes. With the way people change their work processes the way we communicate changes, as well. Companies become more networked and emerging technologies find their way into companies (either through employees or the company itself). Through globalisation and people working at home, virtual offices are created. I believe leaders need to react to these changes and alter the way they lead for two reasons: first, to be accepted by the employees and second, to stay competitive in the market. To explain why leaders should understand how social media affects leadership and how they can react is the central question of this essay.

In the second section of this essay important leadership attributes are described. These attributes, in general, are not related to social media. The third section explains how these attributes are affected by social media. In this context you can see social media as a chance for the attributes on one hand and as a threat on the other. The fourth section describes a guiding policy how to implement and use social media from a leader’s perspective.

Leadership attributes

To identify and describe important attributes of a leader, the tasks of a leader have to be explained, first. These can be separated into three areas: setting direction, aligning people, and sustaining motivation (Northouse 2009, Yukl 2009). For the area of setting direction the more specific tasks of a leader are: define the purpose, vision and strategy (Northouse 2009, Yukl 2009). Within the area of aligning people the specific tasks are: communicate the vision, create coalitions, and get commitment from the people (Northouse 2009, Yukl 2009). In the last area, sustaining motivation, the specific task is to keep the people moving together in the right direction (Northouse 2009, Yukl 2009). Now table 1 assigns attributes to the area of tasks.

Table 1 – Leadership attributes assigned to tasks (Finkelstein & Hambrick 1996, Northouse 2009, Yukl 2009)

setting direction aligning people sustaining motivation
professional knowledge communication vision
vision integrity humility
decision taking vision Emotional Intelligence
innovation humility
Emotional Intelligence

Table 1 shows that there are eight important attributes a leader should have: integrity, vision, communication, decision taking, innovation, humility, professional knowledge and Emotional Intelligence. Table 2 explains these attributes.

Table 2 – Leadership attributes with description (Konger & Kanungo 2004, Northouse 2009, Russell & Stone 2002, Yukl 2009)

attribute description
integrity behaviour is consistent with values and belief and it is honest, ethical and trustworthy
vision communicate values in articulation of a vision that describes aims and objectives future developments to empower followers
communication activity of conveying information which requires a sender, a message and an intended recipient
decision taking process which results in the selection of actions among different scenarios
innovation creation of better or more effective assets for the organisation
humility quality of a person to be modest and respectful
professional knowledge knowledge of a person that is necessary to execute assigned tasks
Emotional Intelligence ability to identify, assess and control emotions of oneself and others

Influence of leadership attributes by social media

To explain how leadership attributes are influenced by social media it is necessary to define the term social media. In general social media includes different technologies (web-based and mobile technologies) to alter the communication process and enables the production and distribution of user-generated content (Mayfield 2008). In more detail, these technologies have one or more of the following characteristics: participation, openness, conversation, community and connectedness (Mayfield 2008). Furthermore social media can be divided into six kinds: social networks (e.g. Facebook), blogs, wikis (e.g. Wikipedia), podcasts (e.g. through iTunes), forums, content communities (e.g. YouTube) and microblogging (e.g. Twitter) (Mayfield 2008).

At this point it is appropriate to ask the question, why companies should use social media? The reasons for this can be different and are often closely connected to the structure and culture of the company. Research shows that companies make different experiences using social media and most of the companies are still experimenting (Brown et al 2011, Bughin et al 2011, Bughin 2010, Zeisser 2010). Nevertheless there are companies that have been able to make processes more efficient and effective through social media. Table 3 shows how the leadership attributes from section 2 are affected by social media and reveals that for almost all attributes chances and threats exist.

Table 3 – Influence of social media on leadership attributes (Dean & Webb 2005, Girard & Girard 2010, Jue et al 2009, Lewis 2011, Li 2010, Qualman 2011, Qualman 2010, Safko 2010, Sweeney et al 2010)

attributes of leadership chances threats
integrity preparation of meetings and ideas like a never-ending protocol
vision empowering followers becomes measurable employees can express critique
communication get in touch with employees easy because of no hierarchy; easier to reach everyone bad or false information might spread; impersonal (unemotional)
decision taking facts are available and searchable not able to see or influence reactions
innovation natural teams form; leader signals development ideas not thought through; employee involvement
humility leader has no direct influence on what is posted
professional knowledge follow discussion and get new insights from all level of employees information overload
Emotional Intelligence expression and judgement of emotions not possible

Furthermore the table shows that social media is good for communicational aspects of an organisation. However, this is no surprise as it is the intention of social media to connect people and enable them to communicate. More interesting is the analysis of social media from a personal or emotional aspect. The central question for a leader is, how to implement and use social media in an organisation and benefit from it. In addition a leader has to know how to get the maximum out of the chances for the attributes and how to minimize the damage of the threats.

Guiding policy for leaders

For a leader it is important to have a strategy for the use of social media to keep up the important attributes. According to Rumelt the basic steps of a strategy consist in identifying the challenge, creating a guiding policy and designing coordinated actions (Figure 1, Rumelt 2011). Section three has identified the challenge. This section will create a guiding policy for leaders. The design of coordinated actions is not part of this essay as I believe these have to be specifically designed for each organisation. This means the actions depend on the leader’s personality, the company and what kind of social media is used.

Figure 1 – Strategy for leaders

The first step to take for a guiding policy is defining the proximate objectives (Rumelt 2011). This means defining the objectives that the leader aims to achieve with social media. These can be different but should be separated into two classes: the use of social media primarily for communication and secondarily for personal aspects, because social media provides more chances for communicational aspects than for emotional aspects (see table 3). When a leader uses social media for communication he/she is able to fulfil attributes like vision, decision taking, communication, innovation and professional knowledge. For personal aspects he/she is able to fulfil integrity, humility and Emotional Intelligence.

The next step is design. It can be separated into three tasks: premeditation, anticipation and design of coordinated actions (Rumelt 2011). During the premeditation the leader has to find a balance between prior guidance for the use of social media and on-the-spot adaptation. Considering the fact that social media provides more threats than chances for emotional aspects I believe it is the best way to develop prior guidance for the primary objective of social media and on-the-spot adaptation for the secondary objective. There are no best-practices for emotional aspects in social media and even if they would be available the leader can’t be sure they work for him/her. The emotional aspect of social media is critical for the use within the organisation. Therefore I believe the leader should focus on on-the-spot-adaptation for emotional aspects to be able to experiment and make short-term changes. For the anticipation, within the design step, the leader has to anticipate the behaviour of the others (in this case his/her employees and stakeholders). The leading question is: Are employees and stakeholders willing to accept communicating online through social media? If he/she can’t anticipate the behaviour of ‘the others’ to answer this question the leader faces great risks. Imagine a scenario where the leader undertakes all the necessary steps to implement social media but no one is willing to participate. The leader would damage his/her attributes (see section 2). The last step is the design of coordinated actions. As pointed out earlier the design of coordinated actions needs to be company specific. However, there are a few guidelines a leader should consider (Rumelt 2011). First, the leader needs to identify alternatives. In this case the identification of different kinds of social media. Second, valuing the outcomes of the different kinds. This step is difficult for communication processes as it is not possible to measure it with numbers. However, the leader might take a look at other companies to see how they use social media. But this doesn’t mean that it will work for his/her company. Third, appraising probabilities of events. This step is again difficult for communication processes. However, to be able to appraise probabilities for the leaders company I suggest starting with a small group of employees.

The third step for a guiding policy are chain link systems (Rumelt 2011). I believe all the steps for a guiding policy are important but this step is most critical. Chain link system means that a system can only be as good as the weakest part/step (chain) in this system (Rumelt 2011). Considering leadership attributes and social media the leader faces a two dimensional challenge. First, leadership communication is part (chain) of the whole company, whether or not it is realised with social media. Second, the different leadership attributes are chains within the leadership communication itself. This means for the leader that he/she has to optimise both challenges in order to be a good leader but not both at once (see section about focus below). As pointed out above the biggest challenge for a leader is the emotional part of communication.

The next step is focus / growth / advantages. Focus means that the leader has to focus his/her resources (Rumelt 2011). The previous step revealed two challenges for his/her communication. I believe he/she should focus the resources on the leadership attributes first to optimise this chain link system. Only when this system is optimised the leader should shift the focus to optimise the leadership communication within the company. The reason for this is that attributes that are not as good as the rest of the attributes can have negative exponential affects. Imagine a situation where all the attributes are equally good except for the attribute Emotional Intelligence and in the social network communication about the vision is going on. The leader is not able to handle or judge the feelings/reactions of his/her followers about the vision, especially negative ones. This affects not only the leader’s attributes but also the rest of the company. Thereafter both dimensions of the challenges are negatively affected. Growth means that the leader should start with a small group to test social media and the influence on his/her attributes. With a test group and a small and controlled growth scenario the leader would contribute to the steps design and chain-link system; therefore, strengthening the whole guiding policy. An optimal growth scenario would be that other departments ask the leader for the use of social media because of positive opinions from the people already using it. With this scenario the leader can be sure that the attributes are affected in a positive way. He/she uses the chances and minimises the damages of the threats (see table 3). Advantage means identifying which asymmetries are critical and turning them into advantages (Rumelt 2011). As discussed earlier the biggest asymmetry can be found in emotional communication. I pointed already out that it is difficult to include emotions into social media. I think it is a good idea to have a look at the situation from a different perspective. Imagine negative emotions from employees in a company without social media. I believe social media can make a contribution to minimise the emergence of negative emotions (see table 3, row ‘communication’). For a leader it becomes a chance to use social media if he/she can minimise the emergence of negative emotions even though it is difficult to express emotions in social networks. From a leader’s perspective we can go a step further. Imagine a scenario where a company uses a social networks and an employee posts an idea about an innovation. Now other employees have the chance to react and comment on this idea. Assuming a few employees react in a positive way the leader can form these employees into a team to develop this idea further. This team starts with positive emotions because they have the same feelings and interests for the idea. I believe that through this positive scenario more projects can become a success and there are companies who proved that (e.g. Capgemini). Through the increasing number of positive projects the use of social media can become a competitive advantage, not only internal but also external.

The last step of this guiding policy is leverage. It can be divided into three sub steps: anticipation, pivot point and concentration (Rumelt 2011). Anticipation in this context means, that the leader anticipates that social media makes communication more efficient and effective and that his/her followers appreciate it. The leader needs insight into a pivot point that will magnify the effects of focused energy and resources. As pointed out above, I believe the pivot point is the emotional aspect of social media and how to deal with it (explained in the section about advantage). At last, the leader needs to concentrate the effects of effort on fewer, limited objects that generate a larger payoff. Again, I believe the limited object to concentrate on is the emotional aspect of social media.


This essay showed that classic leadership attributes are affected by social media but not always in a positive way. Especially emotions are difficult to deal with. After explaining the chances and threats for leadership attributes through social media, this essay designed a guiding policy for leaders. This guiding policy showed how to get the most out of the chances and how to minimise the identified threats. This policy even found a way to integrate emotions. The conclusion is that leaders need to change their way they lead. In addition they need to alter their communication to be accepted by employees and stay competitive. Through the guiding policy developed in this essay leaders get a good first insight how to deal with social media. However specific steps have to be developed by the leader itself as they need to be company specific and consistent with the leaders’ personality.


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