Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Real Work of Leadership and Change

Last night, I was reading the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine and came across an article called “The Twitterfly Effect” by Linda Tischler. The essence of the article is about how the Rhode Island School of Design hired a new president, John Maeda, in December of 2007 who was charged to “define the school’s relationship with a new era of digital technology and global society while preserving the best of the school’s culture and mission.” One of his first goals was “to establish a more open form of leadership, in part by using digital tools to help spark conversations.” These tools included launching a president’s blog, tweeting and having a personal Facebook page. On the March 2, 2011 after the release of a new strategic plan designed around a more interdisciplinary framework for undergraduate studies, the RISD faculty voted “no confidence” in the president and the provost.

As he explains in the article, “his cyberstyle leadership was a misstep at a conservative campus battered by the recession.” He also acknowledges that “he understands that social media can only take you so far in redesigning leadership. All those great hopes for leading by blogging, tweeting, and emailing proved inadequate to the gritty business of persuading an actual living, breathing constituency to follow his direction.” As he continues, “... now I realize that what I thought could work in the digital era doesn’t have the same impact locally as it does globally. People don’t want more messages; they want more interactions. There’s no perfect memo where you can press SEND and get connected, or Facebook group you can join to be committed.”

Now he is leading in the “old-fashioned way: building relationships one at a time, having coffee with faculty, jogging with students late at night, offering free pizza as an inducement to get them to show up and talk. These interactions are time-consuming, high-bandwidth, interactive, fiscally expensive and unscalable.” In short, he is building trust, buy-in, and community.

When I read this article, my first thought was “when did building relationships become old-fashioned?” Of course, they are time-consuming and interactive. Relationships do take time, energy and commitment because they are relationships. Commitment, buy-in and trust are investments. What you feed, grows is not fast but it is powerful.

My second thought was that this man needed a good executive coach who would have pointed out on day #1 that people bond with people before they bond with a strategic plan. A fine executive coach could have advised this college president that having a clear sense of direction is powerful, but it is worthless unless people are willing to follow. Every good leader needs good followers. However, the best leaders know that the best followers are actually partners and colleagues rather than simply lemmings running in a specific direction.

Finally, social media has its place in change. Recent world events have proved this point on numerous occasions during the last 12 months. However, cyber-leadership is not the foundation for sustainable change. Cyber-communication can help but we are people first and foremost. We follow people and this means we need to have time and space to engage with each other.

In my opinion, “old fashioned” strategic dialogue and relationship building takes place best in person, not over the internet. As Napoleon said so many years ago, “Don’t talk to your troops until you can see the whites of their eyes.” I believe we are wired for relationships and we all want healthy relationships with others. Nevertheless, we only form relationships by being interactive with others on a regular basis over time. This dialogue process happens on multiple levels, e.g. seeing, hearing and feeling, rather than simply being connected to an internet feed.

John Maeda learned some important lessons as a new college president at the Rhode Island School of Design. We, thanks to Linda Tischler’s fine article, also have the opportunity to learn and relearn some important lessons about leadership, too. Old fashioned relationship building does make a difference in the short and long term process of finding direction in the midst of change.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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