Leadership In A Social Era: Notes From #Pivotcon

I thought I’d share my comments kicking off the discussion with Paul Greenberg this morning at the Pivot Conference. We were talking about Leadership In A Social Era. There was a great hand off when Brian Solis said that he, the conference producer and MC, wasn’t the ‘guy in a black turtleneck and blue jeans’, so I could walk in and say ‘Here I am: the guy in a black turtleneck and blue jeans.’


Today I want to start this discussion with Paul Greenberg by focusing on three challenges for leadership. I think these form a power law: the first is twice as large/critical/difficult as the second, and the second is twice as large as the third. So I am going to take 2 minutes for the first, one minute for the second, and 30 seconds for the third.

1 Welcome To The Postnormal

We’re no longer living in the old economy, based on industrial-era principles. That’s over. We’ve crossed into the Postnormal, and most leaders are either unaware of that transition, or are seeing only disconnected parts of it.

It’s not just that things have sped up: it’s the changes that this degree of speed brings.

The Postnormal is an era typified as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous, or VUCA. This translates into a context where

  • things are changing unpredictably,
  • we don’t know what is good or bad information,
  • economic systems are so interconnected we can’t analyze the impacts of our efforts on them,
  • and we can’t effectively ‘read’ the situation we are confronted with.

Denise Caron says it well [emphasis mine]:

We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.

So learning how to lead and thrive in the Postnormal must be leadership’s first job.

2 Leadership In The Time Of Followership

The rise of the social web is changing the world, and causing some to equate large followings online with leadership. John Holt countered that, saying this {emphasis mine.]

Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. The include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, determination, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head even when things are going badly. This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about.

3 The 3D Workforce: Distributed, Decentralized, and Discontinuous

Part of the postnormal world of business is the 3D work force: distributed, decentralized, and discontinuous (as I explored in a recent GigaOM Pro report on Work Media, aka enterprise social networks). It’s a work anywhere, with anyone, and any time world. But there is a lurking fourth D: disaffected. Businesses are confronted with growing numbers of uninvolved workers, many who have lost faith in their companies since 2008, perhaps as a result of company-led economic ‘adjustments’.


Also, during the discussion I made a few points that are worth highlighting:

  • Anyone interested in the future of work should read the Valve New Employee Manual (see here).
  • I believe that management will continue to use techniques that don’t work instead of adopting ones they don’t understand (source: Eric Bonabeau).
  • The most critical attributes of leaders today will not look like those we associate with leadership of even a few years ago. The patience to let things develop, the ability to operate in ambiguity. And lastly, the courage to try things that make you uncomfortable. 


These and related concepts are forming the foundation of the book I am writing currently, Beyond Social: Imagining The Postnormal Business. You can sign up for the Beyond Social newsletter, here.

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