13 Rules of Leadership for Communication, Influence and Social Media Strategy


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For many years I have drawn great inspiration and lessons from leaders of all sorts – political, corporate, social and the like.

A political and social leader who has had among the greatest impact on me is former U.S. Army General and U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. In his autobiography ‘My American Journey’ Mr. Powell shares many stories, insights and lessons learned throughout his storied career.

Perhaps the most important offering in the book are the ’13 Rules of Leadership’ that he shares.

I refer to these rules often and each time I look at them I learn something new.

I would like to share them with you – along with commentary as to how I apply each as a communication professional leading in an environment of constant social and business change.

Interestingly, I found a great article authored by David Zinn that was published in 2000 – where he applied the same rules to coaching in sports. A few of his insights are woven Into the below as well.

RULE #1: It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.

The practice and art of managing communication and influence has changed significantly over the last three years driven in large part by the impressive utilization and growth of social media – further enabled by innovations in the development of mobile technologies and social applications.

The ability for anyone to publish and communicate instantaneously with reach beyond boarders (only limited timezone) has fundamentally changed how communication professionals manage influence and shape opinion.

Communication professionals are often under pressure (sometimes false) to react or respond to issues in the social web in a matter of seconds or a few minutes – rather than several minutes to a few hours. The pressure to react or respond so quickly to a negative ‘tweet’ or blog post before it becomes viral can be great. It can also often make an issue or situation worse if done in hast.

Because of the viral nature of social media – when you react or act you must do so with a sense of purpose, clarity and honesty. Sometimes this means taking time to gather facts, background and even assess if a response is warranted – or – if the ‘social system’ will self correct issues of concern.

It is always best to allow time to assess and condition a situation before reacting…because it might not look that bad after thinking it through.

RULE #2: Get mad, then get over it.

Social media is a tremendous environment for people to channel their emotion and how they feel about a particular issue or situation. When people communicate via social media it is often because they want to be listened to – they want to be heard.

As such, you should resist being pulled into someone’s emotional state – particularly if it is one of anger.

Keeping composure in how you communicate or react to a situation on the social web is paramount. In many cases the life span of a seemingly negative issue is short lived. Communicating with anger or emotion only fuels more emotion, speculation, and will likely add to the longevity of issues (unnecessarily).

Using sports as an analogy, when faced with an adverse situation you must collect yourself, get back into the game and focus on forward progress – which can be done in both defensive and offensive positions.

So get mad (privately), regroup and re-establish a position directed at turning a negative situation into a neutral or positive one.

RULE #3: Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

Given the rapid pace of change in an increasingly competitive business environment it is important to question the old, comfortable ways of doing things. As David Zinn rightly identified in his article – If you are doing things simply because it is the way things have always been done, you should question yourself. As the old way often will not be conducive to success or creating the elusive and much desired competitive advantage.

Reinvention in business and in corporate communications is critical to foster and sustain innovation and forward progress both for your company and your professional career.

I have found that there are three fundamental principles of social thinking that business leaders must ‘align to’ in order to be successful in today’s environment:

1. Be open to ideas outside of your own

2. Be flexible and open enough to incorporate those ideas into what you do

3. Have genuine desire to achieve continuous competitive advantage

RULE #4: It can be done.

The ability to influence or motivate change (in behavior, attitude or opinion) is often done when you demonstrate the positive side of the change you are trying to create.

People and organizations often resist change when they do not see the positive side of the question ‘why?’ or ‘what’s in it for me?’ If you help people understand this in their terms, you can influence and/or accelerate a positive change that will support your efforts.

It should be said that social media is a great environment to connect with people in mass and accelerate positive change… if used appropriately. I will address this further in a later rule.

RULE #5: Be careful whom you choose.

This rule is applicable in many forms – such as in building teams, friends and allies.

But for the purpose of this post I assert that it is especially true in choosing outside people you bring in to support your communication or influence programs. If you are managing influence programs that involve working with 3rd parties (analysts, thought leaders, academics, researchers, bloggers, etc) be careful as to who, why and how you engage with them.

Respect the boundaries of objectivity, motivation and engagement. Don’t put yourself or your company into a position of building relationships with individuals or organizations without understanding who they influence, how they influence and why? The why is perhaps the most important part.

A good place to start is to fully understand the objectives and business challenges that your company is facing. How has the competitive landscape changed? What are the opportunities or adjustments that your company is making to become more competitive (e.g. delivery of new products/services; entrance into new markets; etc.)? What issues or trends are affecting the industry and how can your company advance or influence them in an effort to support larger business objectives?

With an understanding of these fundamental issues you can more clearly identify the right influencers to engage to collaboratively advance a larger market agenda to support your business and external stakeholder objectives.

RULE #6: Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

Communication professionals in many organizations are the ‘stewards’ of corporate reputation.

Responsibilities associated with this require (on the defensive side) mitigating or navigating crisis situations or deflecting competitive attacks. On the offensive side it can mean contingency planning or increasing sentiment/favorability toward the company for greater competitive advantage.

Many seasoned communication professionals have an instinctive ‘spidey’ sense that allows them to anticipate adverse situations prior to going into ‘protect and defend’ mode. In such cases, the initial instinct for many is to attempt to immediately control a situation by ‘spinning’ or ‘messaging’ around the issue(s).

It can’t be said enough how critical it is to gather and understand the facts of a situation before taking action. Don’t ‘spin’ or simply message around a response that although reads well, may be devoid or separated from truth or fact. Often a good spin will be unwound quickly by the ‘social system’ if not based on truth or fact.

Going back to rule rule number one, it is important to resist the pressure to react too fast if it means affecting the quality, clarity and purpose of the response.

RULE #7 You can’t make someone else’s decisions. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.

As David Zinn states in his piece, if you are operating within the rules and have the support of your management to make decisions then do so with care and stick to them.

On the flip side, as communication professionals we are often in the position to motivate, advise, influence, and even persuade decisions but the reality is that the responsibility for others’ choices belongs to them and you cannot take it from them.

Picking up from the previous rule, below are three basic steps that I have come to appreciate as it relates to making tough decisions. These are derived from my own experiences and from working with great leaders over the years.

1. First. It is important to understand the ‘core issue’ associated with the challenge that you are dealing with and gather as many facts and insights surrounding the issue as possible. At this stage, it is important to separate ‘facts’ from ‘opinions.’ As a leader, you are often presented with ‘facts’ that are presented to support a specific argument or point of view – which by default make them adverse. This is not to say that these adverse or ‘position-based’ facts are not valid, but they seldom represent a fully informed view of the core issue that needs to be addressed.

2. Second. Look at your decision options from all angles and perspectives. Many tough decisions will have a broad affect on your business which might include: brand; reputation; relationships with employees, customers, partners, governments, investors, influencers, etc. It is very common to overlook the total impact that a tough decision will have on your business. This is why it is important to consider many options – as you weigh the impact and trade-offs that most important decisions will require. As a leader, this is where intuition and experience play a big role.

3. Third. Ask a lot of questions. This will help you understand the options on the table as you make sense of the facts and sift through potential agendas/motives of people involved. Asking the right questions also helps you measure the risk and impact that your decision will have on your business and with key relationships.

You may even consider speaking with trusted representatives from affected internal or external groups (customers, employees, partners, etc.) to get their perspective. This interaction will also help secure support and buy-in (by all parties) of your final decision once you are ready to communicate. The ‘tougher’ the decision the more challenges you can expect to face as you communicate and implement.

In some cases you may need to be prepared to help affected parties understand the rationale behind the decision and even share some of the alternatives considered and why you chose a different path.

RULE #8 Check small things.

Simply stated, the best communicators have mastery of the ‘strategic’ with ability to manage the ‘tactics’ (details).

RULE #9 Share credit.

I recently became familiar with a term called ‘scraping’ content which I view more as a euphemism for plagiarism.

When people contribute content to the social web via blogs, video, tweets, ebooks, webiniars, etc it is often the case that they do so for free public consumption and benefit. If content is original and relevant then it will attract good attention and recognition – and might even inspire someone else to carry the idea/content forward and extend.

In these cases it is a matter of professional courtesy to share credit with the originator of the idea that may have inspired your thinking. I have seen on many occasions high profile bloggers (not to be named here) who have ‘scraped’ content from lesser known people and passed it off as their own original thinking. This totally discredits the ‘scraper’ and minimizes their influence.

Simple rule (which applies to much more that this example) is to share credit where credit is due!

RULE #10 Remain calm. Be kind.

As indicated through this post, social media is fast-moving and requires anticipation and calculated action in a sometimes chaotic environment.

Communicators who stay calm diminish their chances of saying or doing something they will regret (refer to rules one and six for additional perspective).

RULE #11 Have a vision. Be demanding.

Over the past two years, many communication leaders have had to rethink the design of their programs, mission, organizational structures and purpose – to better enable their companies to lead in a hyper-competitive and increasingly social business environment.

Reputation management is no longer the only nor the primary mission of corporate communications. More than ever, communicators must demonstrate how they help their companies create competitive advantage and support the accelerated adoption of a company’s products and services; increase both customer and employee engagement and productivity; accelerate innovation processes, etc.

Communicators must also demonstrate how they bring actionable insight into the organization through effective use of internal and external social strategies and programs.

The ‘integrated process’ and ‘function’ of corporate communications in a social world represents a powerful asset for companies to help advance and strengthen their competitive advantage. The benefits can be realized through the advancement of your company’s competitive position; increased reputation; validation of new market and business opportunities; and 3rd party education, thought leadership and best practices that increase visibility and confidence that your business is a valuable and smart investment (for shareholders, customers, partners and employees).

Communication professionals have a truly great opportunity to take a leadership position in helping their companies adapt and be successful in a world that is increasingly becoming more and more ‘social.’ All you have to do is establish a vision and be demanding!

RULE #12 Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

Playing off of the previous rule, you simply cannot please everyone. In sports, the saying goes “coaches who listen to the fans end up sitting beside them.” Leadership In today’s environment requires taking a certain amount of calculated risk. If you have done your homework and have built your house on a rock…then move forward! Be bold. Be proud. Be proactive.

RULE #13 Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Enthusiasm is contagious. David Zinn states that a positive can-do attitude increases the chances of success. We can never know how much we influence the people we lead. The effect of either our optimism or our pessimism can be enormous.

I have previously quoted Oprah Winfrey as saying that: “People don’t change behavior or positions based on what they know. They change based on what they feel.” This is an extremely powerful and clarifying statement. If you connect with people with a sense of optimism, purpose and a position of strength you will accelerate change that will carry and multiply through their [people] channels and relationships.

In closing

If any of these rules resonate with you or inspire a different perspective, please share!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Don Bulmer
Royal Dutch Shell
Don Bulmer is Vice President of Communication Strategy at Royal Dutch Shell.


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