Clay Shirky on the New Style of Peer Leadership

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Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody author, interviewed by Marcia Stepanek of Cause Global, on the need for new forms of leadership



Do social media require us to invent new ways to manage organizations?

They absolutely do. I don’t think traditional management is something that can control this. Organizations everywhere are essentially wrestling with how do we hybridize with these newly capable, self-organized groups that use social media to come together around a cause—or, in Obama's case, around a candidate. It's really that kind of Vatican II sensibility—Vatican II being the 1960s doctrine from the Catholic Church that said the people are the church, a fairly radical move; and yet, compared to what's happening in the organizational world and in politics—the idea that the government is the people—the Vatican was actually 40 years ahead of its time.

There's a temptation among most managers to view social media tools and crowdsourcing as simply a sort of novel set of instruments, kind of like, "Oh, here are some new tools for us to get our job done." But this isn't just about laying our hands on some new tools. These crowds are people. It’s really an organizational shift. People managing these newly interactive organizations need to start explaining why it is that what they're doing and asking is important. They need to start articulating how, say, your input is helping the organization and its cause. It really does involve a degree of openness on the part of existing organizations that we haven't seen before. In fact, if you're a manager of a traditional organization looking for control, you will have trouble in this Web 2.0 environment. There's an analogy here. It's the relationship between the structure an organization can provide and what eventually grows up among the people who come there. It's a little bit like the relationship between a trellis and a vine. You can shape it, but the organic growth and the ultimate structure is really going to be produced by the people who come there.

Is there someone or some new organization doing this well?

Boing Boing, one of the well-trafficked Web blogs, has a brilliant community manager named Theresa Nielsen Hayden, whose principal MO is to sit back and watch. She is in charge of one of the Internet’s real hot spots, an incredible amount of conversational energy forming around the various things that Boing Boing posts on its Web log; and yet, she doesn't go in and try and set the tone. She simply tries to set outer boundaries for the conversation, like, this is name-calling and it's off the rails, or, this is a person riding their hobbyhorse. And so she's not trying to guide the community so much as keep it from going into a rat hole where the conversation will collapse. It’s the opposite of the traditional managerial style. When she got to Boing Boing, she did almost nothing for three months except watch. And everybody was like, "What are you doing? Aren't you supposed to be going in and managing the comments?" She was like, "Hang on a minute. Let's just see what happens."

Occasionally, she would step in when she had to. And what she was waiting for is to identify who in the community would come forward and start essentially taking on the community as a whole, shepherding it, the natural leaders emerging from in the community base. And then once she identified them, she hired them to keep doing it. That kind of managerial style is not the 30,000-foot visionary and it's not the micro-manager. It's in this middle zone where there's a high degree of facilitation, but there's also just a high degree of observation—What is going to happen next?—because in these kind of new open environments, there's a good chance that what happens next organically will be more interesting, more effective, and more important than something you could decide in a morning meeting.

So it's a kind of natural selection: if left alone, the group will choose its own leaders?

Yes. There's a lot of rhetoric around about self-organized and bottom-up and so forth. And it is very possible to overstate the case, to take the illusion that if you just dump a million people together, somehow Wikipedia emerges as a side effect. But I think, critically, for these large-scale, long-term management efforts [of newly interactive organizations and institutions], there is a profound need for [a new type of] leadership. It's not that, you know, somehow social media and crowdsourcing lead to mob rule. Rather, those most interested and able in a crowd tend to identify themselves and emerge to step up to the plate.

When you look at, say, Wikipedia—2 million articles in the English language contributed by over 3 million users—you see that there's a core group of people who care much more than the average person in that crowd about the success of the project as a whole. The kinds of leadership that make those core groups work is very different than, "Well, I'm the CEO, and you're the CFO, and you're the COO, and we have this org chart." It's much subtler and more flexible than that. But just because the structure doesn't look like what we're used to doesn't mean there's no structure. This isn't a choice between structure and no structure. It's more of a choice between a more rigid and a more flexible structure.

We've all seen those orchestra conductors who walk off stage and, of course, the orchestra keeps playing brilliantly. Is the type of leadership required here more comparable to that of an orchestra conductor, or is there a need for a new kind of leadership that we've not yet invented?

There is an Israeli conductor, Itay Talgam, who gives a talk on leadership styles using orchestra conductors as the example. And the critical thing that a conductor does is synchronize the orchestra because the complexity of self-synchronization is hard at that scale. Critically, string quartets have no conductor. The first violin is essentially providing the synchronization. But the need for the kind of management that the conductor provides really only comes with scale.

So if you've got a small-scale group, you can actually get away with much lighter management styles than if you have a large-scale group. It's when you grow that you need a heavier style. The other question about the new type of leadership is how to get a group of people to all agree that a shared vision is something they'll pursue even if they don't agree with every particular. Some of this is ancient stuff—you can go back to Plato and Aristotle and the argument about how to form an ideal republic. Today, what we're dealing with is essentially a new mix, precisely because of the new technology capabilities. Every political norm is really a bargain with the current environment. When the environment changes, the political norms can change, as well.

One of the political norms has been that it takes a large institution to accomplish large-scale, long-term tasks. But that's no longer true anymore. You can write a complicated piece of software or create an encyclopedia without needing the kind of institutional and managerial frame you needed before. What I think is coming is a new type of leadership style that will expand into other kinds of collective action—in particular, real-world collective action. And so, for a traditional institution, this is really a moment where, if the organizational structure doesn't change, then the institution is essentially going to find itself working at cross-purposes with many of its members. This is a challenge that people in the Obama administration are facing; that people in nonprofits are facing; that people in many institutions are facing: how to change the organizational structure enough to accommodate Web-enabled, ground-up, collective action—self-organized groups of members or supporters or constituents that, because they're using new technology tools, are demanding interaction at far higher levels than before. This is something that really is unprecedented. Those organizations which fail to exert new leadership will risk losing support."