· Features

Leadership in an age of social media

Social media is changing the role of leaders and their relationships with ‘followers’ and other stakeholders.


The phenomenon of social media now pervades almost every aspect of our personal and business lives – and the revolution continues. In its most basic sense social media has created a shift in how people communicate with each other, discover, read and share information – which has implications for leaders, leadership and HR’s approach to leadership development.

HR must play a key role in helping leaders and managers optimise their influence in a world where the fusion of psychological and technological skills is key to success. This research project identified how social media is changing the nature of the relationship between leaders and followers.

What’s new

If we look at the profile of a successful leader they are influential in their field and widely respected by their team. They are used to shaping opinions and taking decisions that produce great business results. However, something is changing.

Conversations are taking place across traditional boundaries both within organisations and outside. Other individuals are informing them of new and fast-changing ideas, and others may be managing new technology more easily. So what’s going on?

Social media is what’s going on. What started as a personal networking tool for students was quickly adopted in business as a way of delivering niche marketing and branding advantage. And there it remained for a little while. But in recent years the growth of social media has been explosive.

Social media and HR:

Social media is damaging young professionals' careers

Can employees be held liable for social media posts?

What to do about employees’ offensive social media posts

According to Hootsuite and We Are Social’s global Digital in 2018 report internet users worldwide in 2018 reached 4.021 billion, up 7% year on year. Active social media users worldwide reached 3.196 billion, up 13% year on year, and unique mobile phone users reached 5.135 billion, up 4% year on year.

It is now estimated that there are 11 new social media users worldwide each second. So it is inevitable that such global blanket usage will eventually permeate every part of the business world.

As one leader commented during this research: “If the slowest mode of communication you have ever known is email then your expectations are different and leaders must adapt to survive. People are used to being listened to and to having their voice heard through social media. They expect it at work too.”

One of the key reasons this is important for leadership is that social media changes the way relationships develop. For leaders a key relationship is the one they have with those who follow them. Social media has, however, repurposed what it means to be a follower. ‘To follow’ used to refer to behaviour that meant to go behind someone else and so a follower would tread in the footsteps of a leader.

It now implies a choice made by the follower regarding information or communications. The workplace choices made by followers are now much more selective, voluntary, multi-channelled and arguably better informed.

Other changes have also taken place that merit a closer look at the leader/follower relationships that lie at the heart of effective leadership. The traditional organisational hierarchy between leaders and their followers has eroded over time, partly due to social movements and the growing empowerment of followers through their ability to access information more easily.

Leaders are no longer the sole source of information about their companies or sectors. High-profile incidents at companies such as Enron, BP, Lloyds, TSB and Exxon have led followers to question and potentially distrust top leaders. Mergers and acquisitions continually disrupt the stability of leadership.

And other factors such as new business models and the gig economy are all blurring the distinction between leaders and followers. As too is the concept of ‘slashies‘, people who identify themselves by the breadth of their interests and skills – so as a market analyst/app designer/yoga teacher/author, say, rather than a ‘programmer’ or an ‘administrative assistant’.

In addition to the leader/follower relationship dynamics there is evidence that people are more likely to trust a company whose leadership team engages with social media, and that they would prefer to work for a company where leaders are active on social media.

Most people also believe that use of social media improves CEO engagement with employees and that this is mission-critical for a business (according to a BRANDfog 2016 survey).

Over the past two years this research project, conducted by Ashridge Executive Education and sponsored by UNICON, interviewed and surveyed a cross-section of consultants, leaders and HR professionals about the impact of social media and what it means for effective leadership.

Through qualitative and quantitative analysis it examines whether the fundamental attributes of leadership are changing in the modern digital world.

Key findings

The research explored what has changed and what has remained the same for effective leadership today. It found that beliefs about the essentials of leadership are relatively stable; people still say that leadership is about trust, communication, influence and good relationships.

What has changed in the leadership mix is the nature and granularity of the relationship between leaders and all those around them, in particular their direct followers. We identified several important aspects of this changing relationship.

Breadth of reach

Social media allows leaders to access many more stakeholders, both directly and indirectly, than has previously been possible. As well as enabling fluid communication within teams there is now the opportunity to engage with many other stakeholders in more meaningful ways.

Speed of communication

Through social media leaders can communicate frequently and ‘instantly’ with their teams in a variety of sophisticated ways. The social media channels available allow for better dialogue, with immediate reaction and response.

Targeted messaging

While leaders have always been aware that their message must address the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor for different audiences, this is now amplified. Given the veritable tsunami of data available to followers online they now have significantly more choice about the information they receive, attend to and respond to.

Balance of power and influence

Social media allows for much more personal communications between leaders and their followers. This two-way dialogue creates the opportunity for followers to influence decisions and outcomes, which means there has been a shift in the power dynamics.

From research to reality

HR must be the ‘go-to’ place for leaders who need advice, support and expertise on how to proactively make the most of the social media tools available. This means reflecting on the potential of social media to enhance leadership effectiveness in the L&D strategy and in leadership development.

Firstly, the trend in leadership development over recent years has been to focus on ‘soft’ skills such as listening and empathising. While these are critical leadership qualities, the research identifies the need for hands-on technical training.

Where some leaders have independently developed themselves to become ‘fluent’ users of social media, every business needs a strong HR capability to guide and direct the use of the powerful leadership tools that social media offers.

It should not be left to DIY learning, as this risks a happenstance rather than thought-out strategy. To make the most of the value and power of social media HR must ensure that the technical skills and capabilities of all those in the leadership cadre are world class.

While an outsourced team of experts may operate on behalf of a few senior executives this will not help the ranks of middle managers who may need to be brought up to speed and who, for example, may unexpectedly be exposed to a message that goes ‘viral’, or a crisis that requires urgent resolution.

The research also highlighted that while many managers have become comfortable using a WhatsApp group with their immediate team, there is a reluctance to engage with social media in a more strategic way.

Opportunities could be missed here. Personal blogging, for example, can not only raise the profile of individual leaders but can provide a useful platform from which to share company achievements and developments.

Yet such use is far from universal. When asked about the adoption of social media for the more task-related functions of leadership such as performance management, most leaders said they had not yet considered this.

They are, however, increasingly aware of the power of using social media to reward and recognise the work of others, suggesting they could be helped to explore and expand their use of the potential functionality available.

If the business is to be as responsive and agile as possible in today’s turbulent environment, leaders and managers must also be helped to stay connected with their networks of relevant stakeholders. Cross-sector partnerships, interdependencies and blurred boundaries all make for a busier and potentially more confusing communication landscape today.

Add to that the differing capabilities and expectations of digital natives, and it is imperative that managers and leaders are supported to use social media to meet these challenges. One way of developing the necessary ‘filter management’ here is to ensure leaders at all levels have a clear line of sight from their teams to the overall business strategy.

HR is also uniquely situated to help people address some of the personal tensions and paradoxes that have emerged. For example, the use of social media involves creating a public profile and this can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it creates opportunities for opinion-forming and influence, but on the other it can expose leaders to risk and vulnerability.

We have always known that for leaders to be trusted they need to demonstrate integrity and authenticity, and this often means sharing personal experiences and views.

Social media appears to amplify this need and leaders must be cautious and manage the boundaries between their private and corporate personas. HR can help leaders to continue to develop their self-awareness and understanding of their impact on others.

Another tension raised in the research concerns the need for immediate ‘sound-bite’ responses to social media activity at the expense of strategic long-term thinking.

There is a balancing act to be performed here involving strategy, decision-making skills, judgements and communication. Leadership development should not simply follow a competency-based menu but encompass some of the multi-layered challenges that are likely to emerge.


It is unlikely that the social media genie can be put back in its bottle – and leaders would certainly not wish to do this as it can bring many benefits. However, it must be acknowledged that there is a potential dark side, which is where HR expertise is needed.

The research found that for organisations that embrace social media, and really think about how they want to use it, this can be a game changer, spurring new ways of communication, data-gathering and connecting with stakeholders.

For individual leaders it is essential that they embrace the changes. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant to those they aim to lead.

Patricia Hind is a business psychologist and director of the Centre for Research in Executive Development at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. Viki Holton is a research fellow at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School

This piece appeared in the May 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk