Leading in the Digital Era

If our students are to become strong leaders in the 21st century, we must teach them to be both politically aware and social media-savvy.
Illustration of man holding up star with other business people in background with social media icons overhead

Leadership has never been easy, but in the past, the responsibilities of leaders at least were more easily defined: understand the landscape, set a direction, and inspire action. But with the rise of the internet and social media, society’s expectations have changed. Leaders now must engage in public online discourse with stakeholders and adapt to quickly changing ethical, social, and environmental standards. It has become a cliché, but it’s true: In this age of social media and instant communication, change and disruption are the new norms.

A leader’s failure or success depends on his or her ability to navigate the digital realm effectively. This added level of complexity will have significant implications for the business curriculum—particularly in four key ways that the adoption of social media has changed a leader’s role, reach, and responsibilities.

Wider Influence

Before social media, leaders rarely could extend their influence beyond the employers, customers, and suppliers of their organizations. But through their social media networks, leaders now can extend their influence much farther. According to a 2017 report from the social media management platform Hootsuite and media company We Are Social, more than 3 billion people are social media users—that’s 40 percent of the world’s population. To reach diverse populations and targeted segments within those billions, leaders must know how to tailor their personal leadership brands on channels such as Twitter and LinkedIn. At the same time, they must be prepared to curb the enthusiasm of marketers who wish to create personal brand messages that might aid the organization’s reputation but lack authenticity.

Communication skills have always been important to leadership, but social media has had a massive magnifying effect. That’s why business schools must help aspiring and emerging leaders develop the self-awareness to know what kind of authentic leaders they want to be. In our classes, we must teach all students—from undergraduates to executives—how to communicate well. We must help them learn to wield influence responsibly, while staying grounded and alert to the pitfalls of hubris.

Building the social media skills required by future leaders starts early. While most undergraduate students are generally well ahead of their lecturers when it comes to navigating different platforms and websites, they can be far less knowledgeable about how to craft personal leadership brands for themselves. At Exeter, we are learning how to combine social media and personal branding in the curriculum, so that we can equip students with the skills to get noticed amid the intense competition for graduate-level jobs.

Greater Transparency

While social media networks can amplify leaders’ influence, they also provide a permanent record of past actions. And the more visibility leaders achieve, the easier it is for others to check their histories and the harder it becomes to gloss over past mistakes. But while we want to prepare our students to use social media thoughtfully as leaders, we don’t want them to feel so constrained that they avoid taking risks.

The political arena might offer our students a helpful, if somewhat controversial, guide. After all, like business leaders, politicians use social media to convey messages and to judge public support. But they must be careful that every message they send is consistent with their values and decisions. They know all too well that the public will tolerate their mistakes to some extent, but only if those mistakes do not deviate from their stated values.

Identity research teaches us that we develop as leaders over time. However, the only way we can become authentic leaders is by understanding what we value most and using that understanding to guide our actions and behaviors. It is vital to encourage students at all levels to take a reflective approach and strive to understand their own personal values. As part of this process, we often encourage MBA students to write letters to their future selves to be opened after five or ten years. This year, we are adapting this approach as part of our annual Leadership Expedition—a weeklong trek on a Norwegian plateau. During the expedition, rather than ask students to write to their future selves, we have asked their friends and family to write them letters from home. In these letters, which students will receive periodically throughout the trip, their loved ones will envision them as future leaders and describe the values they are likely to hold dear.

Values are key to success in a digital age. If business schools provide time and space for students to clarify their personal values and beliefs, students will always have their values to guide their decisions. They will feel not only freer to take risks, but also better able to lead consistently, responsibly, and purposefully.

Greater Democratization

Social media and technology are great levelers, in that any individuals with enough followers on social media can position themselves as leaders worthy of being heard. This democratization of leadership, however, also generates much noise and confusion. Whose voices should be trusted? What sources of information are reliable? And in this age of “fake news,” how can leaders cut through the confusion?

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, the two roles the public trusts most are academic expert and technical expert. The roles they trust the least? Government official, journalist, board director, and CEO. As bridges between academia and business, business schools have a huge opportunity to build and maintain the public’s trust in business. In our leadership curricula, we can teach students to integrate research and academic rigor in their decision making, as well as to harness the democratizing influence of technology to carry out their organizations’ strategy and build trust among stakeholders.

To further help students hone these bridge-building skills, business schools should make political awareness a typical feature of their curricula. Students need to understand how business operates within the larger political context—and that politics exists only because there are different and conflicting views about what and how things should be done. In fact, many MBA students already recognize the workplace as a political environment, and they understand that good leaders have the ability to navigate and manage groups with competing interests and needs. When we teach them to be more politically savvy, we contribute to building trust and strengthening democratic processes in the workplace.

Faster Communications

Social media networks have resulted in the increased speed of communication—with the right hashtag, large numbers of people can engage with each other on an issue in real time. Likewise, one thoughtless online post can be quickly shared across large audiences, which presents great reputational risk to leaders and their organizations.

But, luckily, the speed of social media also gives leaders the power to engage with a large audience quickly and simultaneously. That’s why we must teach leaders to use social media platforms to strengthen their relationships with their teams and partners and to communicate their vision and strategy to the world. And we must give them the tools they’ll need to manage the vast global flow of information in ways that help them stay abreast of what’s happening in their industries.

At Exeter, students at all levels learn about the importance of networks and social media as part of their studies. Our undergraduate leadership modules, for example, encourage students to strengthen their ability to influence, create, and manage networks. Our marketing modules teach them about personal branding and communication. We design activities that will help them understand how to attain and extend their influence within their companies and beyond. Fundamentally, we want them to become more effective and impactful in all their communications, both on- and offline.

Mastering Media

In the years to come, I believe leaders will need to become even better at navigating the interactions between people and technology—especially on social media. They’ll need to become masters at tapping technology to enhance, not inadvertently distort or undermine, their relationships with followers.

If we are to prepare students for the digital age, we must start by making them well aware of the ethical and technological challenges they will face. Most important, we must show them how they can use digital media to achieve more transparent, courageous, and authentic leadership.


Photo of Jo Silvester, deputy dean and professor of psychology at the University of Exeter Business School in the United KingdomJo Silvester is deputy dean and professor of psychology at the University of Exeter Business School in the United Kingdom.

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