How to Lead in the Age of the Multi-logue

Posted 11.24.2009

Have you seen the new smart phone commercial where the guy is standing in the middle of the desert and all of the thousands of people in his information stream are rushing at him? It’s from Motorola. It’s 30 seconds long and worth a quick look.

It’s funny because it’s true. We recognize ourselves as that guy. The information is washing over us like a flood and we just want to strain out the things that matter most. It’s a challenge for everyone, but I think it’s a particular challenge for leaders. 

There may have been a time long ago when leadership looked like a monologue. Think of the great orator in the town square delivering a long speech to people who were actually listening. Over time, leadership evolved to include dialogues. Effective leaders learned how to have conversations with individuals or groups to identify and work on the most important issues. In 2009, I think we’ve seen the emergence of the multi-logue. The rapid adoption of social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter has created an environment in which a countless number of conversations are going on at anytime.  (See this post on the social media explosion for a quick primer.)

How does one lead in a mutli-logue age?

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz has been considering that question.  In a recent article for The Economist called “Leadership in the Information Age,” she succinctly describes the situation for leaders today:

“The online world has guaranteed that every remark about your business and every change you implement will trigger a viral frenzy of second-guessing. Borrowing from the black bag of politics, your competitors will also be spreading their own version of “opposition research”, feeding the blogosphere with critiques of your leadership.”

In my book, The Next Level, I argue that leaders need to pick up a big footprint view of their role and understand that, as a leader, you are always on stage. In the past year, the internet has put the big footprint aspect of leadership on steroids.  What can you do in the midst of the multi-logue to ensure that your leadership footprint is making the desired impact? Here are seven steps to consider:

Get clear on your purpose  – To break through the clutter of the multi-logue, you have to be consistent with a message that is relevant to the people you’re trying to influence. Harvard’s Michael Porter once said that strategy is as much about what you’re not going to do as what you’re going to do. That idea applies here. Be very clear about what you’re trying to do and what you’re not trying to do.

Be consistent in your presence – There are no time outs for leaders these days. A camera phone makes it possible for that picture of you dancing on the table to be online about a minute after you finished the samba. Be intentional about the presence you’re trying to project and present it consistently.

Get in the game – Figure out where the conversation is happening and participate in it. It could be live or it could be virtual. Actually it will be live and virtual. You can’t win, if you don’t play. If the conversation is on the blogs and Twitter, you need to be on the blogs and Twitter.

Pay more attention to the forest than the trees – Accept the fact that you’re not going to agree with, like or even see everything that is written or said about you and your organization. Look at the individual threads and comments as data points. Look for and respond to the trends in the data. Don’t stress out on every data point.

Contextualize – Because the multi-logue is a stream of data points, it can be challenging to put it all into an actionable context. One of your jobs as a leader in the multi-logue is to see the patterns and put everything into a context that enables you and your organization to act on its purpose.

Review and plan the message – One of the consistently low rated items in my company’s 360 degree review of high potential leaders is “Regularly takes time to step back and define or redefine what needs to be done.”  An important leadership skill in the multi-logue will be to keep your head about you when everyone else is losing theirs.  Being intentional about reviewing and planning your leadership message can help give you the perspective to keep your head on straight.

Unplug regularly – The lowest rated item among high potential leaders in our survey is “Paces oneself by building in regular breaks from work.”  Every so often, you need to create some space to renew your mind, body and spirit by literally and figuratively unplugging from the conversation. When you plug back in, you’ll be a lot more clear and effective.

So, that’s my take on this year of the multi-logue. What’s yours? What are you noticing about the challenges of leadership in the internet age? What’s working for you that you could share with your colleagues?