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We, not I: why social leadership is the future

Leaders who rely on their status or title to get things done may find their days are numbered in today’s workplace. Data shows employees are often not fulfilled and engaged to the extent organisations need them to be. In this post-pandemic, 21st century Social Age, what is needed is social leadership: a new emotionally intelligent management style focused on empathy, connection and teamwork.

What exactly is social leadership?

Social leadership describes managers whose leadership style focuses on emotion, empathy, connection, collaboration, and communication. Such leaders are agile in responding to their employee’s needs and recognise how important it is to build strong relationships and instil a social purpose within their team to create a positive work environment.

Rather than using traditional top-down, directive leadership to get things done, managers adopting a social leadership approach will instead use their emotional intelligence and people skills to build social capital, influence others, and enhance their professional development.

We are now living in the successive era to the Digital Age, the so-called ‘Social Age’, according to Julian Stodd of Sea Salt Learning, author of The Social Leadership Handbook and Social Leadership: my first 100 days. The unprecedented connectivity of the Digital Age means old systems of power and control formed during the Manufacturing and Knowledge Ages are being rebalanced. Power now increasingly comes from reputation, rather than the formal leadership given to leaders by an organisation. In a social system, power is given by the community around its leaders, and is earned through authenticity of action.

“Social leadership is a kind of reputation-based authority which sits within social structures. It’s available to anyone, from those in formal authority to those who earn it through their actions. . .The number one thing people look for in social leadership is authentic storytelling. Even if a formal system takes away your voice, if you can share your story with authenticity that gives you great social authority.”

Why do we need social leadership?

Across the board, employee engagement and satisfaction surveys are turning up similar results: people are not feeling engaged and fulfilled in their jobs to the degree organisations need. This style of leadership is therefore more effective in modern workplaces in which employees are increasingly seeking meaning and purpose in their work.

“People join companies and leave managers,” says an article by Be-Leadership, a leadership development consultancy whose clients include industry, charities and government departments. “In this social era, leaders not only hold a real dialogue with their employees and customers, they also need to rethink their role in society. Employees expect organisations of all forms to act responsibly and with purpose, and engage with broader society in a positive way.”

Social leaders tend to be emotionally intelligent, which can lead to better management and staff retention. 

A study of two million employees across 700 different companies carried out by Gallup discovered that employee turnover and productivity is largely attributed to their supervisors. Those employees who had managers with high Emotional Quotient (EQ) were four times less likely to leave their company and more than 70% of their perception of the company culture resulted from these managers’ levels of emotional intelligence. What is more, this translated to higher productivity and profitability among teams whose bosses had high emotional intelligence.

Social leadership development is crucial for ensuring the ethical conduct of organisations as well as for the pursuit sustainability and public value. On his blog, Julian Stodd suggests that in the Social Age in which we live, social leadership could provide the tools to bring about social change and build a better world: “Our challenge is to build the skills, capability, and mindset, to do better: to build organisations that are more fair, to lead, and learn, with humility. To act with kindness and to strive for social justice, in all that we do.”

What are the characteristics of social leadership behaviours?

Some social leaders may have hardwired social skills and a knack for understanding people that makes them a natural at effective leadership, but these social skills can also be learned and practised. Some of the key skills that social leaders have include:

Working together with their team – being fully aware that decisions are made as a team and communication and respect should be supported and nurtured.

Showing vulnerability – for some managers this may feel counter-intuitive, but by not being afraid to show their vulnerability, social leaders are able to be more ‘human’ – open and authentic with those around them, building trust and loyalty.

Listening to their gut – social leaders show intuition and are able to read a situation and make decisions on instinct rather than purely on reasoning.

Caring about others – social leaders genuinely care about others and their wellbeing. Their empathic approach means they can see how decisions impact others and use another’s viewpoint to understand what has happened.

Being courageous and resilient – social leaders can withstand stress and remain balanced in a crisis. What is more: they will do what is right, regardless of how easy that is.

Being a ‘people person’ – they are acutely aware that people and the relationships between them are critical to the healthy functioning of an organisation. 

How do I adopt a social leadership approach?

Clore Social Leadership, part of a dynamic and inclusive resource for leaders in the UK’s arts, culture and creative sectors, has developed an approach to developing social leadership capability gathered from a decade’s work with leading coaches and trainers in the field. They suggest three methodologies and mindsets they believe can help develop a person’s leadership skills and unlock their team’s potential to achieve more together.

  1. Know yourself, be yourself, and look after yourself: Start with self-awareness, critically assessing your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and values. Build your physical and emotional resilience and look after yourself and your wellbeing so you are best equipped to deal with leadership’s many challenges.
  2. Assess the context: Social sector systems are rapidly changing, transforming workplaces, politics, ethics and communities. Social leaders must understand these complexities and be aware of what might lie ahead to steer their teams and organisations and make the most of potential opportunities.
  3. Work with, and through, others: Leaders can’t exist in isolation. They need social skills and empathy to inspire, motivate and empower others, while also celebrating the power that difference brings. Working with and through others involves collaborating, forming partnerships, as well as inspiring and growing other leaders, all while making a positive social impact.

Shape and deliver the public services of the future

The University of York’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme can equip you  with the social leadership skills to lead in public and non-profit organisations.

York MPA graduates rise to the modern challenges of delivering more with less, navigating a complex policy context, and enhancing performance while staying true to public service values. 

Designed for professionals in public and non-profit organisations, York’s 100% online MPA will help you make a positive impact on improving public service provision and public life.

York MPA graduates go on to a wide range of roles, including in national and local government, international NGOs and charities, the NHS, leading consultancies and accountancy firms, universities, banks, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.