Yes, social media is the realm of clickbait articles, personality quizzes and enough stupid animal videos to make a circus trainer blush. But there's also inspiration, connection, and information sharing at an unprecedented pace. These things enable social media to create as well as undermine leaders - and the more present you are on social media, the more you'll be able to control what happens to you.
In a recent survey, 75 per cent of employees said that a leader's presence on social media improved their ability to lead. And in leadership, as with most elements of organisational culture, perception is reality. When your employees - or your colleagues, your team members, even your higher-ups - see you as a better leader, you are a better leader. You are listened to more earnestly, sought ought for guidance, and a source of inspiration.
You get to be all of the things you think a leader should be, because social media allows you to show those around you that you already are a leader.
"This industry is competitive, but if you can prove you're reliable and produce consistent results there's still room at the top," says Elly Z., an independent consultant and rising leader in California's medical marijuana business.
"Social media is a really valuable way for me to show my skills, my experience, my approach, and my philosophy. Several major clients learned about me through social media before I even knew they were interested, and I'm peppered with questions all the time from pro growers and amateurs all the time. All the joys of industry leadership!"
Again, it all traces back to social media's egalitarianism and the ability for anyone's voice and presence to proliferate when it resonates. 74 per cent of US adults use social media regularly, and that number spikes above 80 per cent if you limit it to adults under 65 (among those 18-34, it's 89 per cent). The vast majority of the working population is potentially just a tweet or a post away. Establishing a strong leadership presence is as easy - and as fickle - as expressing the right thoughts and ideas in the right way to speak to a particular social media audience.
If you want a stronger sense of leadership within your organisation, use social media as a transparent way to speak to your team. If you want greater leadership in your industry, or in the business community, or as a public figure, share thoughts and ideas that will spark conversation on issues important to each particular audience. Social media is a way for you to not only join but guide the conversation; regularly expressing commentary and insights that resonate is how you build an audience, and an audience is one thing every leader needs.
And audiences need leaders, too. If you aren't expressing your thoughts and ideas on social media, someone else will capture the audience's attention and your leadership will quickly be eroded by others' encroachment. You'll always be sharing the stage on social media, but if you aren't claiming your spot on it you'll be stuck in the wings.
How modern leaders can make the most of social media
Knowing how important social media is to modern leadership is one thing. Knowing how to capitalise on it is something else entirely. Though a solid leadership presence on social media necessitates authenticity, transparency and attention to issues of importance to your audience, it also necessitates selectivity and control. Mastering this social media balancing act is a must for today's organisations and leaders.
For starters, don't try to be everywhere at once. As important as social media is, we all know it's a small part of leading any size organisation. Stay engaged, and stay focused, too - use social media to respond to important issues related to your business and/or personal interests and philanthropic work. If you try to capitalise on every trend that pops up, you look less like a leader and more like someone chasing after the crowd. You'll also be watering down your message, your brand, and your leadership presence.
Similarly, careful consideration should be given before wading into any controversy, even those that are related to your business.
Any statement made on social media has the potential to go viral, and anything that spreads to a large enough number of people will attract its share of detractors as well as supporters. Championing a cause you believe in, and that is demonstrated in your organisation's values and operations, is worth the effort for intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, but be prepared for some social media fallout from those who don't agree.
Remember, too, that social media is a two-way street. There are multiple parties - potentially millions - to every conversation, and those other voices need to be heard and responded to. You want to guide the conversation as much as possible, and if you've established a strong leadership presence you will be, but you need to join other conversations and sometimes veer slightly off course to keep your audience engaged and feeling respected.
The long and the short of it? Understand that social media is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to build something new, to fine-tune a machine that's already up and running, or to bring that machine to a grinding halt if you throw the proverbial wrench in the works.
First, do no harm; after that, pursue social media with the zeal and the resource allocation that feels appropriate to the size and scope of your leadership role. Keep your finger on the social media pulse and make sure you understand what conversations your should be joining, which you can be leading, and when you need to sit on the sidelines and listen (and when you can completely tune out, too). Be the kind of leader on social media you always wanted to be in life, and you'll achieve both.