The Connected Leader

Web Age managers must learn to sift for gems through torrents of data and chatter
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How will the Internet change leadership? — Octavian Pantis, Bucharest, Romania

Profoundly, but not entirely. Indeed, not in one aspect that matters a lot.

Let's start with the profoundly part, however, because if the Internet hasn't affected you as a leader by now, it will momentarily.

One of the responsibilities most often attached to leadership-writ-large is the communication of mission and values. Pre-Internet, leaders would typically create the organization's mission and values with their top team and then commit to untold hours of meetings, speeches, and walking around to spread the "gospel." For their part, the receivers of the mission and values —i.e. the employees—would hear the word and put it into action. In most companies, input was allowed and even encouraged, but few mechanisms existed to truly capture ideas, positive or negative, from far below and deep within.

The Internet, of course, changes all that. For years now, even low-level employees have been able to reach their leaders simply by writing an e-mail, but increasingly, employees are organizing on company blogs, wikis, online forums, and even social-networking sites, to give their messages urgency and heft. A functional team—located halfway around the planet—can advocate for a change in suppliers or warn of a competitive maneuver that no one in charge seems to see coming. An entire factory floor can call for the ouster of a manager who, unbeknownst to headquarters, has been a longtime expert at kissing up and kicking down. The Internet, in other words, ushers in a whole new level and scope of employee engagement.

Leaders should welcome this development, and most do, but it's a mistake to treat it lightly. Once employees engage you by speaking out, albeit electronically, they expect to hear back. We would suggest that it can be just as damaging for a leader not to respond to feedback as it is not to ask for it at all. In the old days, layers of management filtered out too many good ideas from below, but they also filtered out nattering. In the era of Internet communities, leaders will have to find, largely on their own, ways to process the good and bad alike.

A second important change wrought by the Web concerns leaders' critical responsibility for seeing around corners: anticipating economic events and market trends and adjusting for them. In the past, such foresight came from a mixture of intelligence, experience, good advice, and as much data as you could get your hands on. Obviously, the change lies with the last of these, as the Net, with its bloggers, communities, and newsletters can drown you in data about customers, competitors, and everything else under the sun. Some data are totally useful, some total nonsense.

For leaders, the challenge will be avoiding the energy sinkhole of sorting it all out. Fresh and reliable information is always worth the time it takes to find and analyze it, but seeing around corners will forever involve a measure of insight conjoined with pattern recognition, or put another way, gut instinct.

Which brings us to the one aspect of leadership we believe the Internet won't change because it can't. Real leaders touch people. They get in their skin, filling their hearts with inspiration, courage, and hope. They share the pain in times of loss and are there to celebrate the wins. Sure, leaders can write personal e-mails or "Let's take the hill" missives on the home page. But to rally the team, you need to see, hear, and feel the team, and they need a regular dose of the real you.

Now, we realize this point has not been lost on the digerati. In fact, we were recently at an IT conference where we were able to try out software being developed to replicate the kind of human interactions we just described. Without a doubt, it was cool stuff, but with every mouse click, we kept thinking: "Wouldn't stopping by someone's office to talk be faster and better?"

We don't want to take this point too far, though. Yes, a leader's touch will always be essential. But to your question, in the future, the best leaders will combine touch with the ability to quickly sort, assess, and seize the power of all the ideas the Internet brings and the voices it unleashes. And that will change business for everyone.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.