Is there such a thing as virtual leadership? Let’s see what’s possible when you take charge of new media tools rather than have them take charge of you.
By definition you and your leadership team are expected to provide direction for overall work efforts. Even in self-managed environments, leadership is supporting the values and conditions that make this possible. This means that regardless of your aims, you need to know how to focus organizational attention, and this means understanding how to work through whatever media you choose to provide reliable connection with your people.
If you have ever heard foghorns on a foggy bay, then you know that in soupy, dynamic conditions on the ocean, ships need buoys and beacons to navigate. The same is true of employees in an organization. The details of actually moving your ship are handled by your crew, but as a captain or navigator, you need to know your bearings. Do you know how to create a reliable signal in the fog of information that serves to orient everyone to the right path forward?
Win Trust Through Positioning
Warren Bennis has been one of the lead authors on leadership since the 1980s. Prior to publication of Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge in 1985, he described his research of 90 well-known leaders to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. His insights apply to the new media. According to Warren, all of these leaders shared four characteristics:
1. Vision: They inspired with a compelling story of possibilities. (This underlines the importance of intention and a personal sense of purpose.)
2. Personal Trust: They have positive self-regard and positive regard for others. All were “people champions” who never talked down about the people on which they counted. (Visual listening helps embody this principle.)
3. Communicating Meaning: The leaders Warren studied focused on interpreting what events meant and not on just communicating information. (This is the importance of understanding other people’s experiences with metaphor and models you use.)
4. Trusted Positioning: People want to know in what direction you are going, and when you change position, they want to be forewarned and guided through the change. People get nervous with brilliant people who are wrong 30 percent of the time. (This underlines the importance of making clear, consistent infrastructure choices, for instance.)
In his talk, Warren called the last characteristic consistency. By the time Leaders was published, he changed it to positioning. The word consistency suggests he was agreeing with the buoy principle. If people are going to trust you and your leadership team, then they need to be able to orient consistently to what you are asking of them. This requires eliminating the “noise” and chatter of too much media. The word positioning is a better name. It indicates that some flexibility is needed. But when changes are made, they need to be announced in advance, then again near the change, then at the turn, then after the turn, to underline the new position. All this argues for being quite intentional about your use of media.
How Intention Shapes Your Use of New Media
Cutting through the clutter requires focusing on something other than technology--most important, what you are actually up to as a leader. In fact, it may require a radical rethinking of what it means to lead. In the past, when information and knowledge were less accessible, a big part of leadership was guiding people in how to do their work. Managers hired employees, helped develop them, set goals, demanded performance, and meted out rewards and punishment. There was a time when managers believed their organizations could work like well-oiled machines: just apply scientific management and match the right people to the right jobs and thrive.
Those days are long gone. With monsoon levels of information available and market circumstances so dynamic that people at the home office may be the last to know what is happening, many organizations are finding that the leadership role is turning upside down.
Total Transparency at HCL Technologies[
Vineet Nayar was one of the “management mavericks” at Gary Hamel’s Inventing the Future of Management conference in 2008 in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Some three dozen thought leaders in the field gathered to explore how management could be as innovative as technology.
Vineet is relevant as an example of just how different management might be with the new media. He has advocated a culture of total transparency at HCL and a philosophy of “Employees First.” HCL is one of the fastest growing digital information technology (IT) service provider companies in India. In 2008 it received the Hewett Best Employers award for best employer in Asia. All 55,000 employees post their 360-degree feedback of each other online for all to see. Individual comments aren’t recorded, but the overall evaluations are. In addition, Vineet described a system of job requests, or tickets, made online to other teams and people from which a unit needs help. All responses are also posted so that everyone can see just how quickly different units respond to each other. Among other innovations, he instituted a blog in which any employee can post a question. All of the answers are required to include names. He reported 3,500 posts at that point. He also reported that HCL was growing at 40 percent a year. “Transparency creates trust,” he said. “Employees are the most precious resource, and you win their trust with transparency.”
Managers Support the Front Line at Nordstrom
Empowering employees doesn’t necessarily involve digital technology. How you interact as a leader with your people is ultimately what matters most. At Nordstrom, Betsy Sanders was a young vice president and general manager who saw the upside-down triangle that the company used to orient new employees and believed it. It had the customers on the top and the managers supporting the frontline workers, who were encouraged to do whatever it took to create great results. Against all odds she took on the Los Angeles region for Nordstrom and, in a now legendary turnaround, applied the upside-down principle and ignited a firestorm of inspired employee contribution and customer loyalty. Her book, Fabled Service: Ordinary Acts, Extraordinary Outcomes, details how making customers feel like gold is good business.
A reigning assumption is that new media will help in the process of aligning and inspiring employees. You need to appreciate that media itself doesn’t make the difference. Your intention does, when aligned with visible behavior. “Most managers don’t see their roles as upside down,” Vivian Wright relates. “If they did, then they would act like consultants and treat their employees like volunteers. Moving to increase the power of the institution and one’s own role takes the aliveness out of situations. Working to increase the power in your team brings it back in.”
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Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Visual Leaders: New Tools for Visioning, Management, and Organization Change  by David Sibbet. Copyright (c) 2012 by The Grove Consultants International. This book  publishes 12/31 at all bookstores and is currently available for pre-order online.
--David Sibbet is the founder and president of The Grove , a company whose group-process tools and models for panoramic visualization, graphic facilitation, team leadership, and organizational transformation are used by consultants around the world, including many Silicon Valley firms. Sibbet was the "visual cartographer" for the 2008 TED conference, and created mind maps and diagrams of the lectures in real time. In 2008, The Grove received the 10,000 person OD Network "Members Award" for Creative Contribution to the field of organizational development. Visit davidsibbet.com 
[Image: Flickr user Håkan Dahlström ]