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Social Media vs Leadership – How To Say Follow Me, Without Saying Follow Me

Social Media vs Leadership – How To Say Follow Me, Without Saying Follow Me

Easily one of the most studied subjects of our time, leadership continues to attract its fair share of interest and research spend. It’s not hard to see why. Simply put, the leadership coefficient is seriously consequential. It either multiplies team effectiveness or depletes it. We’d much prefer the former, but our world is no utopia. In a bid to get it right, we’ve examined leadership on every possible dimension. And we’ve learned a great deal about it. But events of the last fifteen odd years have thrown a spanner in the works, checking everything we thought we knew on leadership. Social media – that online space we escape to every now and then – has evolved from a conceptual masterpiece to an economic marvel. Many things come with social media, not the least of which is its own native leadership category. 

The Influencer

I recall an era when we spoke only of influential people. But the rise of social media has seen the influencer term emerging from relative obscurity to the phenomenon it currently is – an aspirational title, complete with modern perks, power and status. To be sure, not everyone on social media aims for this prize. Most are happy to be intrigued, inspired, humoured or otherwise engaged. But for the outliers to the progressive left of the curve, the proposition is markedly different. There’s an opportunity to be relevant, an opportunity to become. Social media instantly creates a massive addressable market. Several in fact. And theirs is to address it. So they commit to creating the sort of content others want to consume. Content that matters. Not the easiest feat in a fiercely competitive domain. But if they can find their niche, hone their craft and deliver consistently, they too can bask in the glory of social media stardom and reap the coveted benefits of influencer status. 

But there’s a catch. The content actually needs to be relevant for it to matter. Nobody is going to reward content creators with their audience if it’s not meeting a need. In this context, attention equals validation. 

So here’s the question I’ve pondered: 

Is leadership in the social media space any different than leadership anywhere else?

A Natural Experiment

The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity to observe the evolving leadership proposition in social media at play. The evidence is telling in the trend. In a section of its 2021 annual report titled How the tide has changed for influencers, the Global Web Index (GWI), a market research company that specialises in online trends, shared some insight on the subject. The report echoed the arguments of writer Chloe Combi that “2020’s ideological shifts caused young people to shift their focus onto true role models and away from polished influencers.” This was on the backdrop of lifestyle influencers coming under fire after travelling to Dubai for a photoshoot, citing essential work, while the rest of the country dealt with the pandemic and lockdown. The incident led to mass un-followings. 

The report notes that the argument aligns with several aspects of GWI data. This insight reveals that followers on social media want to know that their leaders care about the issues that affect them. Empathy matters on social media, as it does off it. 

Looking back in the recent past, my expectations of the social media influencers I follow mirror this sentiment. I now hold influencers who at least acknowledged the social justice and pandemic issues of 2020 in higher regard. Conversely, I have moved on from influencers who were silent on these issues. I still think they are great at what they do. But something that connected us was lost, and the trust level in our relationship has since changed. 


We’ve all experienced the random follow request from a contact looking to build an audience for their message. A reasonable goal without question. Reflect with me on your initial response to these requests; Inspired, intrigued or irritated? You get the gist – the batting average here is hardly inspiring. 

Herein lies one of the great perils of social media – it makes posturing remarkably effortless. However, if the above message is anything to go by, leadership is the same in any context, and social media is no different. 

See Also

But because social media is wired for instant gratification, it’s tempting to focus on growing a following you can leverage as an influencer instead of building meaningful, human connections with your audience. Some influencers in the current climate are finding that they cannot fastrack empathy, or hack trust. They need to build these attributes. And building anything takes time and effort. It also makes all the difference. 

In his closing statement to a TED talk titled Why credibility is the foundation of leadership, Barry Posner made this remark: 

People will not believe the message if they don’t believe in the messenger

Barry Posner

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