My two decades of research on leadership and information technology (IT) has led me to believe that people think that leadership is not affected by IT and, consequently, the way in which leadership has worked in traditional and formal settings would work online too. Or they may believe otherwise but they lack specifics and wish to know more. Finding a good story that shows how IT can affect leadership and to which others can relate is challenging. A recent story makes this job a little easier. It is that of Humans of New York (HONY) and its author, Brandon Stanton. HONY appears on various social media including Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook. I am focusing on Facebook because that is where I most clearly see how leadership is impacted by technology.
Every day Mr. Stanton posts 3 to 4 pictures of individuals, young and old from different walks of life, whom he encounters when walking in the streets of New York. Each picture is accompanied by a brief story or quote. By his admission, Mr. Stanton has walked thousands of miles and stopped ten thousand people to photograph them. Last October, he published a New York Times bestseller with four hundred of his pictures. He hopes to continue taking and posting pictures for a long time. Mr. Stanton’s work has been described as beautiful, a celebration of individuality, and a tribute to the spirit of New York.
Mr. Stanton has amassed a huge following from all over the world. Though he did not set out to become a leader, he has become one — he is able to engage people and influence them in a way that appointed leaders would give anything for. What is really illustrative of Mr. Stanton’s leadership is the community he has enabled. When you view any HONY post, you see a healthy conversation in the form of an extremely large number of likes and comments. You find people sharing stories that illustrate the triumphs and travails in their own lives. Many other jump in to congratulate those succeeding and to support those facing challenges. It is not uncommon for those commenting to amass a large number of likes and comments themselves.
What makes Mr. Stanton a leader? What has helped him become one? Mr. Stanton’s leadership role can be seen in how he is helping others make better sense of the world around them and how they fit into it. He writes posts that others find as touching because they can identify with them. They see something about their own lives in the posts. It may be a personal triumph or challenge. HONY’s stories evoke basic human values of care and concern for others irrespective of their race, nationality, gender, and other characteristics. People feel good when the stories make them feel human. A post and the ensuing conversation may remind people of something that may be missing from their lives such as a relationship, the love of someone, or being with someone they love. By being validated and knowing that they are not alone in how they feel and what they experience, readers feel empowered.
Mr. Stanton has also become a leader by stimulating others to think differently, thereby disrupting existing patterns of thought and behavior. Recently, Mr. Stanton embarked on an eight country UN sponsored tour. As part of that, he visited and posted stories of Syrian refugees camped in Jordan. These stories are unlike those of the fighting in Syria and its victims, which usually evoke feelings of horror. Some readers say that by observing the stories of others, they have learned more about what being human means — more than what their school books have taught them. Others mentioned how the tragic stories were breaking their hearts. Many remarked how fortunate and grateful they are for what they have in their lives. Some noted the resiliency of the human spirit.
One can also see Mr. Stanton as a leader in the ‘swarm like’ emergent behavior he enables. After Mr. Stanton makes a post, his followers collectively address the post without any external coordinating mechanisms or any explicitly posted rules. Occasionally, you notice conflict when posters counter others’ interpretations. For most part these conversations remain respectful. But when some cross the limits of respectful behavior, others jump in to control the conversation and prevent it from going out of control.
So, what does HONY illustrate about IT’s effect on leadership? It illustrates that technology enables the emergence of unappointed, informal leaders who have a powerful influence over others. The networking, viral communication, and widespread reach enabled by technology makes it more likely for those with an appealing vision to be discovered by people from different corners of the world. These individuals are not ordered to follow the leader. They do so because they feel an emotional connection to the leader, the leader’s vision, and the leader’s work. The leader is passionate about her/his vision and is constantly modeling it through actions shared via technology. After stimulating action, the leader gets out of the way. The followers, with the help of technology, take it up upon themselves to share their thoughts, their interests, and become leaders in their own right. There is no top-down system through which leadership is exercised.
This effect of IT is not restricted to the non-corporate setting only. It can occur in and is relevant for all types of settings. In today’s highly complex and dynamic environment, leaders cannot take it all upon themselves to interface with the outside world or even those within their own organization. A leader cannot be at all the places demanding attention. Not only is the pace relentless but the variety of issues is too large for one supreme leader to be able to handle all events in a timely and competent fashion. An emergent, self-organizing system, such as one envisioned by the US Intelligence Agencies, is needed. Others will have to be empowered to rise, respond, and engage others to rise too. Smart leaders create conditions for others to emerge as leaders and then get out of the way. They create an emotionally engaging vision that others can relate to readily. They share their vision, model that vision, and stimulate a conversation among their followers. They don’t try to control the events. Instead, they become facilitators who remove the barriers and make it easy for others to make their contributions towards the leaders’ vision. The followers then take off. Some emerge as leaders themselves.
Technology, especially social media, plays a critical role in enabling this type of leadership. For how else will the leader be able to engage a multitude of people beyond her/his immediate span of control? Engaging a lot of people and that too from different domains and walks of life is critical because it is not possible to predict the situation one will be facing in the future and thus anticipate who might be ready to emerge as a leader or simply participate. Only technology can enable such an engagement. Though HONY has been around for a while, it was only after it moved to social media where others and their actions could not be controlled that it really took off!