Towards to the Social Media Leadership Theory
Katri Luukka, Vice Principal, PhD, Salpaus Further Education
The article’s theoretical background considers the basics of social media and open
leadership theory. This article focuses on a discussion of the three following research
questions: 1. How does an international group of managers perceive their use of social
media as part of their work now? 2. Can their experiences be related to theory of open
leadership (Li 2010)? 3. How do the participants perceive negative experiences, feelings
and face-to-face leading involved in social media leadership? The data was collected on a
private Facebook group and researcher’s 14 blogs. The main results of the research are
that Li’s (2010) open leadership theory considers the basics for social media leadership.
However, there is a need to develop a new more detailed social media leadership theory.
The article presents outcomes of the author’s MBA research (Luukka 2011a) which had
three aims: 1) to investigate managers’ social media leadership experiences on, how open
leadership theory (Li 2010) works in practical leadership situations, 2) to research how
negative experiences, feelings and face-to-face leading are parts of social media
leadership, and 3) to expand the author’s knowledge and skills of social media and to find
useful practical solutions for the use of social media as part of her leadership in an adult
education organization from offline /face-to-face leading culture to new online- offline
leading culture. This article has the following structure: introduction is followed by
theoretical framework that considers the main social media tools like blogs, Facebook,
Twitter and LinkedIn. Open leadership theory’s ten elements from sharing and decision
making to transformation of organization culture are also presented. After that follows
research questions, methods, results and finally conclusions and discussion. This article
focuses on describing the study’s conclusions of the need for a practice-based social
media leadership theory.
2 Theoretical Framework
The theoretical framework of the article considers social media tools; blogs, Facebook,
Twitter and LinkedIn possibilities to improve leadership. The latest Charlene Li’s (2010)
open leadership theory is presented as a theoretical background of the study. The other
previous leadership theories from trait theories (Taylorism) to behavioral, contingency,
transactional to transformational leadership theories were part of the research, but they
are not presented in this article.
2.1 Social media (Web 2.0) definition
Tim O’Reilly (founder of O’Reilly Media) used the term Web 2.0 to describe the significant
shift in how software developers and users were interacting with the Web in 2004. You
could not do this with earlier Web sites, which were primarily used for two things: to
provide information or as Web services. Web 2.0 is working like a relationship Web for
users. Organizations use sites to attract, create, build and deepen relationships with
people: internally with employees and externally with customers, partners, investors or
prospective employees and customers. (Brown, 2009 p. 9, Lincoln, 2009 p. 7, Pauker
Kreizberg 2009, Mustonen, 2009 p.10-11, Safko and Brake 2009 p 6-7.)
At the beginning of the study the author used Jue et. al.’s (2010) definition of social media
to describe to the research participants, what social media meant in the study. Jue et. al.
(2010 p. 44) defines social media as follows: “today social media encompasses all the
Internet-enabled capabilities for communicating through different means: audio, video,
text, images and every other combination or permutation imaginable”. At the end of the
study, the author made her own definition for social media. “Social media is collaborative
online working by using social media tools or social networking communities and other
Internet based solutions to achieve a common goal for online working” (Luukka 2011a, p.
Web logs are better known as blogs (Blossom, 2009 p. 32, Briggs and Burke, 2009 p. 281,
Burrows 2007, Kilpi, 2006 p.11). Private persons are writing blogs e.g. to expose their
public opinions and for keeping their online journals. Blogs are also used as a learning
method to improve and share reflection on e-learning (Ferriter 2009, Imperatore 2009,
Yang 2009). Enterprises are writing blogs for improving their business brand but also for
internal communication as to implement the organisation’s strategy for personnel (Kilpi,
2006 p. 25-27). An important feature of blogging is that readers are able to leave their own
personal comments in an interactive format (Burrows 2007). An ever-growing number of
online markets are using blogs to replace more traditional e-commerce web sites
(Meyerson 2008). The use of blogs as part of leadership is quite common nowadays. The
author has also written blogs as part of her work for two years. The author’s social media
leadership blogs were part of the MBA research project and also secondary data of the
study (Luukka 2011b, Luukka 2011c).
Social media networks: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn
Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are globally the most widely used social media networks
for private and business purposes and therefore they were chosen to be presented as
examples of leadership social media tools. Social networking services (e.g. Facebook,
Twitter and LinkedIn) focus on building online communities of people who share interests
and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.
(Bennet et al. 2010.) These social networking sites generally provide several ways for
users to interact and communicate with each other including writing to each other’s profile,
instant messaging, chat rooms, e-mail, webcams, file sharing, blogging and discussion
groups. Social networking tools foster transparent communication visible to all, the
collaborative input of any employee, could be recognized and potentially be rewarded.
Status and prestige incentives are thus built into the collaborative process, which are the
key factors to contribute to productivity and satisfaction of employees. Transparency is the
key issue of social networking. The benefits of social networking are the following:
community, collaboration and contribution.(Bennet 2010.) Eyrich et al. (2008) argues that
social media has moved to the status of strategic tool and more practitioners are
developing skills related to online communication technology.
2.2 Open Leadership
The Basics of Open Leadership
Charlene Li (2010) has stated in her Open Leadership theory that while using social
technology, it “can transform the way you lead”. She argues that her research shows, “the
biggest indicator of success has been an open mind set- the ability of leaders to let go of
control at the right time, in the right place and in the right amount” (Li, 2010 p. 8). She
continues by defining open leadership as follows: “having the confidence and humanity to
give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish
goals”. Open leadership fosters new relationship with new rules like:
1) respect that your customers and employees have power,’
2) share constantly to build trust,
3) nurture curiosity and humility,
4) hold openness accountable,
5) forgive failure (Li, 2010 p. 14-15.)
The key issue in open leadership is confidence. A leader has to have faith that the
people he/she passes power to will act responsibly. This means that a leader must
understand that there are actually more capable people who can do the things that the
leader does. This requires humility from a leader (Li, 2010 p. 18.) Li (2010) also defines
four open leadership archetype mind-sets for social media users:1) Cautious Tester, 2)
Worried Skeptic, 3) Realist Optimist and 4) Transparent Evangelist.
Ten Elements of Sharing in Open Leadership
The open leadership theory’s key issue is sharing by using social media tools. Li (2010 p.
17-48) defines ten elements of the openness as following: A. Open Information Sharing:
1) Explaining, 2) Updating, 3) Conversing, 4) Open Mic, 5) Crowdsourcing, 6) Platforms,
B. Decision-making: 7) Centralized, 8) Democratic, 9) Self-managing (Consensus) and
10) Distributed. Explaining and updating are the kind of information that originates from
within the organization. Conversing, Open Mic and crowdsourcing mean the kind of
information where information comes from outside the organization back into it. Platforms
offer technological solutions for openness in information sharing. Decision-making four
types 1) centralized, 2) democratic, 3) Self-managing (Consensus) and 4) Distributed are
changing because of the openness of the organizations. No one type of decision-making is
best. They just differ in terms of the degree of control, extent of information shared, and
choice of people involved as appropriate for each situation. (Li, 2010 p. 17-48.) Sharing
makes the organization culture more transparent and therefore there is a need to
transform the organization culture.
Organisation’s Culture and Transformation in Open Leadership
Li (2010 p. 245) emphasizes that company’s cultural issues are the following: 1) values
drive the vision, 2) leaders set the tone and example for others to follow, 3) extending the
old culture into new and 4) systems and structure sustain the transformation. She has
developed an action plan to improve transformation towards open leadership in an
organization. The action plan contains seven recommendations: 1) create a sense of
information sharing, 2) identify the values that will carry you through the transformation, 3)
lead by example, 4) encourage risk taking; reward risks taken, 5) start small to win big, 6)
institutionalize systems and structures and 7) be patient. (Li, 2010 p. 267-268.)
3 Research Questions
1. How does an international group of managers perceive their use of social media as part
of their work now?
2. Can their experiences be related to theory of open leadership (Li 2010)?
3. How do the participants perceive negative experiences, feelings and face-to-face
leading involved in social media leadership?
The research had a case study and action research approaches (Dul and Hak 2008,
Loxman 2007). The primary data was collected from six international managers (one from
Italy and Portugal and four from Finland), who were invited to join a private discussion
group on Facebook (Gaiser and Schreiner 2009, James and Busher 2009). The secondary
data of the research consists of researcher’s own participation on Facebook group
discussions with the participants and researcher’s 14 blogs written between July 2010 and
February 2011 (Luukka 2011b, Luukka 2011c). The data were analyzed by using a content
analysis method (Latvala and Vanhanen-Nuutinen 2001, p. 30-36, Strauss and Corbin
1998, p. 66).
The results of the study show that Li’s (2010) open leadership theory considers the basics
for the social media leadership theory. However, there is a need to develop a more
detailed social media leadership theory, based on the transformation of communication
from face-to-face leadership, offline working culture, to new online-offline working culture.
Li’s (2010) open leadership theory had disadvantage in that it doesn’t put attention to: 1)
sustainable and green business while using more social media as part of leadership, 2)
how negative experiences in the use of social media should be handled, 3) comparing
face-to-face- leading and leading online social networking and 4) discussion of changes to
the emotional part of leadership while working changes from offline to online working
culture. The author’s knowledge and skills have expanded on how to use social media as
part of her leadership in an adult education organization during the research project.
Charlene Li’s (2010) open leadership theory was used as a theoretical framework for a
discussion of social media as part of work of international group of managers. The
Facebook discussion themes; sharing, organization culture, transformation, mind-sets and
traits, learning, benefits, monitoring and risks followed Li’s (2010) theory. These themes
adapted to social media leadership discussion very well and supported that Li’s (2010)
open leadership theory has got the basic key elements, while using social media as part of
7 Discussion: towards to the social media leadership theory
A Quick Social Media Skills test
During the research project the author has developed a social media skills quick test
(Figure 1.) which describes social media users to four levels as following: 1) SoMe-
Preventer, 2) SoMe- Suspector, 3) SoMe- Tester and 4) SoMe- Crowdsourcer. This test
got its roots from the author’s own experiences and also from her observations how
colleagues are acting and struggling while trying to use social media as part of their
leadership. As test results there are four levels for social media (SoMe) users:
- the 0- level person is SoMe- Preventer, who has never been in online social media
networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn). He or she is afraid of social media and
defends himself/herself against social media which is nonsense and waste of time. He/she
feels fear against social media.
- the 1- level person is SoMe- Suspector, who has created profiles or accounts to social
media networks. He/she is a passive watcher, who follows what others are doing, but
he/she is not participating in e.g. online discussions. He/she feels insecure while being on
- the 2- level person is SoMe- Tester, who is both an active and passive social media
user, while sharing and participating in online communities. He/she is wondering is or isn’t
social media "my cup of tea". He/she feels insecurity/security while acting on social
- the 3- level person is SoMe- Crowdsourcer, who is an active social media user in
several social media networks. He/she gets positive feedback from others participants and
therefore he/she is also engaged in social networks development work. He/she feels
security and success while acting on social networks.
1 YEAR 2 YEAR 3 YEAR
To be or not to be ?
TIME FOR ORGANIZATION’S TRANSFORMATION
use of SoMe-
Security and safety
MANAGER’S SOCIAL MEDIA SKILLS DEVELOPMENT
Figure 1. A Quick Test for Manager’s and Organization’s Social Media Skills
These kind of nominations of social media users are as examples of the current situation,
how the older generation is trying to make sense, what social media is and how it is as
part of our work and lives. These kind of nominations are quite irrelevant for the new
young generation, whom Tapscott (2010) calls “grown up digital generation”, because they
are used to using social media in their lives from the beginning. The kind of classifications
of social media users can be useful to help organizations to evaluate their personnel’s
skills and attitudes against social media and it can be an opening for a discussion, how
social media is going to be part of the organization’s strategy and/or business plan.
The three issues: negative experiences, feelings and face-to-face leading are all very
much linked together. Negative experiences might appear while using social media as part
of leadership, if communication between workers has only taken place online and that
affects bad feelings and also it makes one to miss face-to-face leading. The issue of using
social media as part of leadership is not to use only social media rather than combining
social media together with face-to-face leading. While using social media as part of
leadership, the managers must ensure that all participants have skills and will to work
collaboratively online. Managers have to lead and follow online work to make sure that
objectives of the common online work project will be achieved. Managers also have to be
patient and encourage people to work online with using social media as part of work.
Managers have to work as role models for their followers to show how social media can be
used as part of leadership. Finally, managers need a social media action plan as part of
their leadership, which includes: 1) a list social media tools, which are used for internal and
external communication, 2) a plan, how social media is going to be linked together with
face-to-face leading as part of leadership (an online-offline leadership plan) and 3) an
evaluation plan, how social media helps or hinders organization’s current business
(monitoring of social networking’s benefits and risks).
The Social Media Leadership Theory
The study’s outcome was that there is a need for a more detailed social media leadership
theory. The theory should focus on renewing a manager’s leadership skills to see the
perspectives from employee’s private - public issues to different openness levels (intra-,
extra- and internet) of the organization. The social media leadership theory should also
contain broader cultural issues: from social media users (e.g. age, gender, religious and
nation) to organization- related, societal and global issues because the Internet-based
social media is a person’s both private and global working tool.
The more detailed social media leadership theory should outline a manager’s social media
communication skills such as: online writing/drawing, using of images/videos, online chats,
talking online, video conferences, document sharing, micro-blogging, the use of work
related social media networking tools (e.g blogs, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Yammer and
LinkedIn), leading of online discussions and projects, legal issues (e.g. who owns the
online materials and privacy-publicity of the organization), monitoring and evaluating the
risks of using social media.
The new social media leadership theory should be also more detailed to point out
differences and similarities between offline and online leadership and mixed offline-online-
leadership cultures. That kind of leadership theory is going to need knowledge from many
science fields (e.g. psychology, sociology, education, business and information
technology) and therefore the author suggests that e.g. WIKI- social network/platform
could be a functional social media tool to create and develop new social media leadership
theory with voluntary participants/professionals from all over the world.
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