Leadership has traditionally been positioned as a finite social resource that can only be possessed by a few individuals at any given moment.
After all, not everyone can be a leader all the time. Right?
Leadership is changing — it is no longer a finite pool, but an expanding network of possibly infinite potential. With the rise of the social web and a deeper linkage between global context and our everyday decisions, leadership is flatter, faster and hyper-connected worldwide. Knowing how and when to lead from the top-down, the bottom-up, as an individual and as a collaborative group are all equally critical.
And today’s leadership must be empowered by — not resistant to — the rapidly evolving “right now” that travels at Internet speeds. Effective leadership is no longer a relay with one in charge at any time; in today’s social world, the leadership baton is passed frequently in all directions via social media.
But the emergent and mutable leadership web brings risk, too — especially in the world of sustainability, where today’s global challenges seem to consistently seek over-simplified “silver-bullet” solutions and where trust is a rare, but essential, commodity.
How can you and your brand — as a thoughtful and innovative sustainability professional and future-oriented enterprise — establish yourself as a trusted and effective leader? Here are three ways to tell a compelling and complete leadership story using your sustainability efforts as one platform for authentic leadership success:
- Authentic, Bite-Sized Content — In a world of metaphorical story ‘junk food,’ leaders need to serve up stories that are real, great tasting and good for you. Online communication formats are becoming smaller, while sustainability plans are getting bigger, becoming indigestible — there is less space than ever to get your message through. Instead of the traditional approach of generating PR to drive traffic to the long version of your sustainability report, try breaking the report down into ultra-short, transparent stories that can be shared over time to narrate a more complete picture of your efforts and their importance. The bite-size story pieces, in turn, must present real challenges that your brand faces and the proactive actions that you have taken. Millennials — as the largest group of social web users and fastest-growing global marketplace — especially don’t expect perfection. Indeed, they are wary of it. They do want to know that you are one of the best at building a future they want to share in. The effort will provide more chances for one or more of your messages to find an audience, and given the asynchronous nature of social feeds, it will also allow each particular sustainability initiative to emphasize its authentic importance in both stand-alone and connected ways.
- Regular Displays of Progress (Good and Not-so-Much) — Leadership requires trust and the foundation of trust is built from valid actions that matter. People tend to gravitate towards trusted content sources and actively reject the untrusted. The potential for rejection often makes individual leaders and brands leery of sharing both the good and the not so good. It is understandable, yet impossible in today’s hyper-transparent social-media info-sphere. In a complex world where sustainability needs to be a leadership platform, gaining permission to try — and not always succeed at first — is an obvious requirement for progress. As trust is built up over time through a series of repeated interactions that are credible, legitimate and relevant, make sure to show your audience the current state of your efforts. If you can establish a norm of reciprocity – where honest updates are shared and new ideas considered thoughtfully — the audience will come to expect new information, providing a great reason for them to keep coming back to you and appreciate your whole leadership story.
- Engage & Activate Your Friends — In order to engage and activate effectively using sustainability as a lens, you have to meet people where they are by helping them co-create the bridges between what matters to them and what you have to uniquely offer. Actively involving your current audience in the content co-creation process gives a sense of ownership and establishes a more complete, meaningful context. It enhances your leadership reach to new audiences by activating existing trust relationships and communications between peer networks (aka going viral). Success can then breed success by signaling the quality of your content and validating its attractiveness through peer-to-peer story sharing. The latter requires a new way of serving up sustainability efforts: They must be tied to your leadership value proposition and backed up by trusted frameworks that can, in turn, be adapted to the different needs of key audiences. Of our three points, this one requires some truly new thinking on the part of individual leaders and brands. Sustainability can no longer be a separate effort, but must truly be driven into core leadership strategy, linking value proposition, operations and vision together in a transparent, easily shared and co-developed effort.
Andrew Krause and George Basile are co-founders of eEcosphere, a social web platform that connects leading brands with influential Millennials to build a more collaborative and sustainable future (available at the App Store for iOS), which launches today.