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How the Internet is Shaping our Notions of Leadership

Prior to the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camila of the United Kingdom, the public was invited to make a pledge of allegiance: I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. Naturally there was some pushback to this invitation. People pointed out that our collective self worth and dignity has progressed to a point where we don’t hold other people in such high esteem. They are just people after all. And while we can respect other people’s labours and achievements, the concept of reinforcing a hierarchy and pledging allegiance is not in keeping with the times.

As Jared Diamond writes in his best-selling book Guns, Germs and Steel, the advent of agriculture and food surpluses ten thousand years ago created conditions for the rise of hierarchies that human societies were until then unfamiliar with. “Food surpluses generated by some people, relegated to the rank of commoners, went to feed the chiefs, their families, bureaucrats, and crafts specialists.” And while these hierarchies continue to exist today, perhaps a shift is occurring.

Often in the debate about the greatest innovations of the 20th century, various technological inventions are mentioned. The airplane, television and internet. However, a case can be made for a change in our thinking. The 20th century is when self-determination took hold and people around the world threw off the shackles of colonialism, spreading the idea that we all have a place in this world and a part to play in its progress.

Row of various country flags
The 20th century was characterized by self-determination

Along with a movement of greater societal empowerment throughout the world, widening access to the internet gave us a window into how things were done in other countries. Wait a minute! Companies offer paid holiday leave? Some companies work 4-day work weeks and perform better because of it!? You can actually challenge your boss?

The internet has opened our eyes to the realities of hierarchy and leadership, particularly in the workplace. Through articles, videos, podcasts, social media posts and online discussions, we continue to learn how those who were in once protected positions of power are, in fact, just like everyone else. Senior management isn’t endowed with insight that us mere mortals are incapable of comprehending. The CEO isn’t this all-knowing sage who always makes the right decisions.

Many people seek to work in companies with more flat hierarchical structures, where you can speak to your boss if there’s a problem; not keeping it hidden, hoping the problem will go away by itself. Workers want to feel comfortable running ideas by their CEO, not having him being secluded in a glass office in which entry is only permitted after approval by a gatekeeper (i.e. secretary). The internet is changing our notions of leadership.

Businesswoman holding a coffee cup
Workers are changing their expectations of corporate leadership

The internet has also given power to democratization. Posts on Reddit, for example, get greater visibility based on user votes. Posts on Facebook go viral because of people’s likes and shares. To have your videos viewed by millions of people, you no longer need a professional studio and access to a television network. All you need is a mobile phone with a camera and internet connection. YouTube and other internet platforms have empowered million of creators to get their voices heard and to not be dependent on a figure of hierarchy such as a boss or recruiting manager.

Furthering this notion are the opportunities the internet has given to help people make a living. For many people the idea of playing corporate politics and being sycophantic to directors of a company is intolerable. The internet is giving a generation of people entrepreneurial opportunities to do their own thing, from setting up online stores to creating successful social media channels, and to not have to face the traditional route of climbing up the hierarchical corporate ladder.

But as much as the internet has promoted the concept of flat hierarchical structures, social media is largely built upon a leader-follower dynamic. People look up to influencers and try to emulate them. They spend money on influencer merchandise and regularly give live stream donations. At times followers even defend their favourite influencers, perhaps unjustifiably, when they act in inappropriate ways.

Male influencer recording himself/creating content
Social media often leverages a leader-follower dynamic

While it may seem social media helps to entrench a separation between leaders and followers, that leadership is only for a select few, there are often counter forces at play. For example, influencers who abuse their position for financial gain or who behave inappropriately are regularly held to account. One example is popular influencer Logan Paul, who was widely criticized for his CryptoZoo NFT project, which turned out to be a scam.

Being an influencer doesn’t offer the protection once afforded to those in large organisations where challenging the CEO was seen as career suicide. A leader no longer has an aura of invincibility akin to those of ancient times where leadership positions were attained through hereditary means. And in cases where leaders react badly to being challenged, such as Elon Musk firing an engineer who said people were losing interest in his tweets, the leaders are subject to criticism and ridicule.

Ultimately as we progress through the 21st century, our notions of leadership are changing. Senior political positions were often seen as the pinnacle of power. By many people, they still are. However, when the former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK decides to work for Mark Zuckerberg or the former White House Press Secretary decides to work for Airbnb, there’s an indication the tide is turning. During the mid-2010s the then CEO of co-working spaces company WeWork, Adam Neumann, could do no wrong. At its peak WeWork was valued at $47 billion and Neumann’s business decisions, despite burning through hundreds of millions of dollars a year, weren’t to be questioned. However the company’s failed IPO and Neumann’s subsequent ouster, heavily discussed and shared on social media, has reinforced our understanding that being a leader requires talent, but doesn’t make one invincible. Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX have similarly added to this collective understanding. As the internet continues to evolve, so do our notions of leadership. Social media in particular can facilitate people’s journeys into leadership positions, yet the internet provides us with the means to call out abuses of power and has empowered us to hold leaders to account.

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