Is social media really disrupting leadership?

This post is really a note to self and shared to gather input and feedback, partly because I fear the limitations of 140 on twitter may misrepresent me, and partly because I usually find that blogging something helps straighten my thoughts. I’m speaking at National Care Forum’s annual conference #NCF2014 this week and my session is titled ‘Can social media improve service quality’ – so these thoughts are partly related to that too. In this post I’m interested in the potential impact of social media on leadership, and those who are leaders, and I’m particularly interested at the moment in how it’s used (or not) at times of crisis management or reputational risk.

Social media is not new any more. Some would argue it has never been new, and that social has been around since biblical times, it’s just the forms of media that have changed. Certainly there is a strong history of narrative, story telling and social connectivity in most leadership lessons, and indeed throughout history. So what difference does social media make?

Arnstein's ladder (1969)

The ladder above is the work of Sherry Arnstein. It’s not perfect but I find it a useful starting point for considering the role and impact of social media. I first blogged on this 18 months ago, and I’m not going to replicate that post here because you can read the whole thing Social Media and Citizen Engagement, but I believe that social media is a really useful lens for identifying how leaders are using information and power!

I think one of the best things about social media is that it has the potential to disrupt, and turn on it’s head, normal patterns of behaviour. I’m not always saying that is a good thing, in fact one of the few posts I’ve written about leadership looked at Troublemakers or Changemakers? and I am personally very aware of the potential to disrupt, but the need to do that in a productive way.

I think the challenge, and opportunity, for leadership is exactly that. We have tools and platforms at our disposal that can genuinely disrupt what leadership looks like, we can access hundreds of our customers and staff and genuinely empower them to contribute and collaborate with us. We can share, and collect, information and data in real time. Increasingly it’s seen as normal practice for Board Meetings to be broadcast live on the internet, Care Quality Commission have one on Wednesday (21 May) if you’d like to see how that works.

Gone are the days of information being collected in the board room, carefully filtered and dressed for public consumption, before signatories were collected and press releases were signed off and issued. Gone are the days where you could manipulate the timing of your press release to manage minimal coverage, by releasing it so late you’d hope to miss the evening news. That said it would appear that many leaders are not yet realising this, or changing their organisations to take account of it.

I’ll share two very recent examples, briefly, both of which I believe have something to offer this discussion.

The first is Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust‘s handling (I can’t think of a better word) of the communications around the independent report into Connor Sparrowhawk’s preventable death. I’m not going to discuss JusticeforLB in great detail here, there is a blog post that touches on it from the early days Justice for LB: A movement for change, an independent overview of the 107 days campaign written by Guardian journalist Saba Salman on Day 47: Indignation and initiative versus institutional inertia and Sara’s half way blog post Day 53: The golden M(iddle) if you’d like to know more.

Southern Health chose to not release the independent report into Connor’s death until early evening. They offered little communications publicly during the day, nothing proactively until a number of calls were made to their press office once nothing had been shared by 10am. Then a tweet was shared that said they were waiting for permission to publish the report…and eventually many hours later, after 6pm if memory serves me correctly, the report was published.

Screenshot 2014-05-18 22.10.50


This post isn’t a place for a discussion of Southern Health’s performance in any greater detail, or indeed of the JusticeforLB campaign and how we have responded. Although I would draw your attention to a post by Victoria Betton if you’re interested, exploring some of the allegations made about trolling, When is a troll not a troll and who decides? It would appear that those who chose to share their anger at Southern Health’s ‘performance’ were branded as trolls by them – you can click on the image above and see how people responded, doesn’t look like trolling to me. I’ll come back to this below.

Fast forward to today and my attention was drawn to another tweet about abuse of people with learning disabilities, children this time. This abuse happened at a residential school run by MacIntyre in Mid Wales. It was reported by the BBC on Friday. MacIntyre have a press release on their website, that was added on Saturday. Nothing had been mentioned by them, or Bill Mumford, on their twitter streams in response to this story.

Screenshot 2014-05-18 22.21.42

Now, in the spirit of fairness and balance, within the hour Bill did come online and make public commitments to improving things and share his reaction. That has to be acknowledged, but why wasn’t there more public ownership? If you issue a press release, why not share proudly how you’ve responded? Proactive, early leadership, not head down, weekend press releases and hope no-one notices (my assessment, not theirs). Why wait for others to identify and make the connection to your Chief Exec’s additional role. As I said on twitter this morning, I’ve heard lots of good things about Bill and MacIntyre’s provision, and I’m a realist I don’t believe that we’ll ever fully stop abuse from happening, but that is why leadership once this happens is so crucial.

By way of explanation Bill had this to say about why no explicit connection had been made between this story, him, and his role as head of Winterbourne JIP, the national improvement partnership established post-Panorama in 2011 to stop this happening.

Screenshot 2014-05-18 22.32.55

Bill hasn’t been in post a year yet, having replaced the previous leadership, but with the Minister recently describing the programme as an ‘abject failure’ I can understand why they’d want to dodge bad publicity. That said you have to ask how effective that body is if a statement can’t be approved in the time it took MacIntyre to make the decision to close down a school; it may have only hit the news on Friday but concerns were raised two months ago.

Life has moved on. Might I suggest that whoever is giving PR or communications advice to these organisations is wildly out of date. There is nowhere to hide, you’re fighting a losing battle if you think you can control communications in the traditional sense. Perhaps more soul destroyingly you’re missing opportunities to do it differently. To be brave and authentic leaders, to make a stance in the face of mistakes, to embody and role model a brighter alternative. Social media shines a light on these murky behaviours, but it also provides potential to do things differently. People who are challenging you are not trolls, they are potential collaborators.

I don’t sit typing this as an apathetic critical finger-pointer, I’m someone who has put my money where my mouth is. With the 107days campaign I am doing what I can to support change, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to stay silent and watch those who are paid to lead miss opportunities. For the record, I don’t think the solution is more meetings to discuss how things could be done differently, I’m talking about leaders (all of us) taking a long hard look at ourselves and moving away from social media as a space to have tweet chats and feel we’ve done something (I consider myself as guilty as anyone at doing this), and move more towards using social media platforms to really lead differently.

As ever I’d really welcome your thoughts on this post, these really are just half formed observations on my behalf.


When this post was shared on twitter one of the first to comment was Andrea Sutcliffe, who said this:

Screenshot 2014-05-19 10.08.21

Since then it has been variously shared and discussed in relation to leadership, and bureaucracies, and a combination of both. I didn’t think it was accurate to go back and change the title of the post but wanted to add this angle in to gather any thoughts on that too. Thank you.


If you’re reading this thinking your organisation would like to discuss and learn more about how to do this differently, you could always pledge for a £1000 reward on my headshave crowdfunding challenge, and you’ll get Sara Ryan and me in person, at your disposal for half a day to discuss just that (cheeky self promotion, I’m aware that I’m hanging around the bottom rungs of the ladder with that one!)

Screenshot 2014-05-18 22.47.27

5 comments on “Is social media really disrupting leadership?”

Without wishing to appear tendentious, I think we first have to understand what we mean when we talk about leadership. Let’s face, it’s not that there’s a shortage of books, blogs or training available. It’s that so few people demonstrably show it. For me, leadership can be distilled into two words – to serve. If you’ve read or come across Robert Greenleaf (, you’ll understand that leadership isn’t about grandstanding, or the pithy quote, it’s about putting yourself in and amongst it, and, over the long haul, making a difference to the people you serve whether within or without.
Social media gets talked down as a generational thing but that’s no different to saying we don’t dig innovation. Likewise, some people just see it as another suite of ‘sexy’ tools to make a dirge, and not much else.
The starting point? MBWA – Managing by Wandering About (see Tom Peters). Frankly, there’s no point empowering the great and the good if they don’t understand their businesses. Too many ‘leaders’ think command and control and aren’t prepared to get down in the weeds and find out what’s really going on. Indeed they’re so smothered in unauthentic back-slapping that they’ve lost touch with the whole raison detre of the business. It’s only once they’ve connected a few more dots, i.e. those that involve human stories, that they can then start to work out what how to embed social media in the organisation. And it’s not just a case of facilitating the leader to Tweet thoughtfully, it’s about opening up the whole organisation. Centres of excellence, training and the like all help, but it’s less about technical wizardry, and more about showing what’s capable. I could go on…but I think you get the point. Thanks again for sharing. Julian.

Ermintrude2 says:

Really interesting post and thanks for sharing. I like the ladder and hadn’t come across that before. I am one of ‘those people’ that don’t think social media is anything new but rather a different way of communicating – using the same tools we have in terms of communication but in different ways. The different ways, though, are important ways because we have greater opportunities – as leaders and as followers – to judge and be judged by our actions or inactions.
We can see ‘leaders’ in their interactions with each other and their interaction with ‘others’ and it can give us, who aren’t the ‘leaders’ or who don’t have position or status to bandy around, a deeper insight into the minds of those who do.
That’s a key tool and one, I think, that comes out in the wash when there are mistakes made and when more than mistakes are made, wrongness and badness happens which results in deaths like Connor Sparrowhawk’s death by neglect (because that’s what it was). We look at the Southern Health organisational response and the response of the leadership and can judge more than ever because we have social media channels and aren’t restricted to press statements.
That should make organisations and leaders more accountable. My hope is that it will and does because there are fewer places to hide – and when they do hide, as we can see in the case of Katrina Percy, it becomes obvious to those who are watching (although not, interestingly, to the judged of the best CEO-type awards from the Health Service Journal – which ends up then, making a mockery of those awards and those CEOs who may deserve them) – but I’m digressing.
As leaders in public organisations, we have opportunities to hold them to account. The need to go through organisations to get statements ‘signed off’ just emphasises the lack of understanding within those organisations of the medium and the world as it is. We want and can increasingly demand, more leaders make authentic statements as individuals and less has to travel through PR channels – we are seeing that with some people on Twitter – it’s quite obvious when organisations have a human face and by and large,they are the more interesting and more transparent ones. We accept mistakes when they happen if we understand the authenticity and genuineness of the person behind them. We will be increasingly sceptical if we think everything has to travel through a PR team first.

HealthManNet says:

Interesting piece. By coincidence, Roy Lilley’s blog today was on the subject of leadership, making the point that leaders exist throughout the organisation and that most people in ‘top jobs’ are not leaders at all, they are followers. Here’s the link
Quite a few leaders at whatever level are actually quite scared, in my view. The NHS is under scrutiny as never before and the penalty for getting something wrong is usually a posting to Siberia, or worse. The culture from the top down is extremely risk averse and politicians of all colours demand that senior people manage upwards, constantly. It takes a very self confident person to put their head above the parapet and/or take risks, however well thought through.
In such a culture it is hardly surprising that people get defensive.
A few days ago the CEO at Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital tweeted about a couple of mistakes the hospital had made; and apologised. No names were mentioned, confidentiality was maintained. Yet the ‘leader’ of the Patients Association loudly and publicly criticised her for unprofessional behaviour! Tell me, where does a person go from there? Surely openness trumps everything else?
Most of the people I ‘meet’ on Twitter have strong opinions but are very professional and pretty well behaved; and I love it. Yet social media also make it easy – perhaps too easy – for the lazy thinkers, the bigots, the bullies to have a voice and an audience they wouldn’t get anywhere else. It is very easy to sit in your living room lobbing boulders into the virtual pond just to see what happens. This is a very different proposition from actually confronting a person face to face.
So I guess my conclusion is that social media in this context is a two edged sword. There is great potential (and reality) to create amazing conversations, pass on knowledge, genuinely engage, explain, clarify – and have a good laugh. Yet the endless calls for more accountability from people who already feel their whole working lives are one long journey of being accountable inevitably drives them to be very cautious, to clam up, be defensive – and yes, a bit scared.
Maybe if we all just focus on openness, cut out the blame game and model the behaviours we want to see in others, the ‘leaders’ will come out from behind their rock and join us in the sunlight.

Thank you for a great reflective post George. I am fascinated by how organisations are responding to and engaging with social media. I think social tools do provide great ways to engage and connect without the limitations of space and time. However, I am also struck by how some institutions just appear to buckle down and ride a social media storm which can be whipped up and gone in an instant. My initial optimism that platforms like Twitter enable people to engage in practices that substantially challenge institutions are tempered with my observation that organisations can and often choose to ignore those challenges and I’m not sure how worse off they are as a result…

Write a reply or comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *