Leadership And The Limitations Of Social Media

The May 2011 edition of Fast Company magazine profiles John Maeda, the president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).  Maeda was a risky choice but he wanted to “establish a more open form of leadership”.  This was going to done primarily through constant digital and electronic communication.

His strategy for communicating with faculty and students included launching a president’s blog to solicit feedback, constant tweeting, and something very rare for college presidents – a personal facebook page.  The results of this progressive form of leadership have been shocking!  Those he is most responsible to serve and lead, the faculty, recently gave him a 142-32 “no confidence” vote.

A further look reveals why this was such a rebuke to his vision and this type of digital leadership.

  1. Change Slowly During Uncertain Times – Beginning his tenure during the 2008 recession, Maeda inherited an endowment dropping 30%.  No one likes change but a baby.  Therefore, leaders must provide stability before implementing change during times of uncertainty.
  2. Complacent Communities – Claudia Dreifus states “The most bland university presidents are the most successful.  It’s one reason American higher ed is in trouble.”   Tenure was originally implemented at universities so professors could be protected and think creatively.  What has resulted, is that many now do not think at all.
  3. Red Shirt Your Ideas – Maeda admitted a tension between his dreams and reality.  Often the best ideas do not need to be immediately implemented.  Maeda has learned that one step ahead of the people is a leader.  Ten steps ahead is a martyr.
  4. Social Media Has Limitations – Maeda now admits constant electronic communication is a poor substitute for the heavy leadership lifting required when engaging “an actual living, breathing constituency” and attempting to influence them.  In a profound statement, he says, “the digital era doesn’t have the same impact locally as it does globally.”
  5. We Are In The People Business – People want to be engaged, not dictated to.  People follow people, not digital noise.

Ironically, this crisis of leadership was occurring during the release of his new book, Redesigning Leadership.

I give Maeda a lot of credit though.  While many talented and creative leaders would have become frustrated and blamed the people or environment for being out-dated or old-fashioned, he rolled up his sleeves, was humble and did the following to build bridges.

  1. He Changed His Behavior – Maeda has done a lot less blogging.
  2. He Listened To His People – As he now says, “Technologists believe that if they impose a solution, people will adopt it but buy-in can’t be bought.”
  3. He Began Building Relationships – The best and most fundamental leadership is relational.  Maeda began having coffee with faculty, working out with the students, and having pizza sessions to stimulate conversation. 
  4. He Gave His Most Valuable Resource, Time, To Others  – Relationship building is time-consuming and has much hidden costs because of the value of Maeda’s time.  However, this investment is proving to be a worthwile investment.

Maeda’s position is still tenuous and he has not completely changed.  He tweets constantly viewing it as a way to share what he is learning.  However, he has learned that a tweet, blog post, instant message, or facebook entry can never replace a smile, handshake, genuine compliment, or a simple conversation focused on someone else.

Pastors, business leaders, coaches, parents, husbands – Are you paying attention?

To make your voice heard as a leader, click The Leadership Tribe link.

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About Brian Dodd on Leadership

I am a church stewardship and leadership consultant for INJOY Stewardship Solutions. This blog combines my personal passions of church, sports, pop culture and family into a single leadership resource. I trust your time on this site will create conversations and add value to your life.

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