The story was just a little item in the Washington Post. The all-male Kuwaiti Legislature had voted unanimously to allow women to vote and run for office. What a strange thing for them to do, I thought. It turned out that thousands of women were using Blackberries beneath their burkas, emailing the legislators to support the new law. This story spurred me to write my first book about the ways that social media were shifting power from institutions to individuals.
Ten years (and three books) later, most leaders of traditional organizations—those started last century and organized around command-and-control cultures—continue to resist the wide-open social world, confusing openness with chaos; they work at rather than with people. As a result, they are missing enormous opportunities every day to tap into the social networks, ingenuity, and good will of their own constituents. They aren’t tapping into the power of what I call “Matterness”—the shared space between people and organizations where each is heard, their unique needs are met, and a greater whole is formed. Matterness is:
- The willingness and ability of individuals to speak and be heard
- The willingness of organizations to listen and work with—not at—people, and to engage people on the inside and outside as creative problem solvers and ambassadors
- The smart use of social media to connect people online and on land—huge ecosystems of people and organizations filled with generosity and capital
We need a different kind of leadership to enable organizations—whether traditional legacy organizations, start-ups, or all-volunteer networks—to focus on Matterness. Organizations that enhance Matterness are open to the input of constituents, and encourage leaders to be real human beings with flaws and vulnerabilities. They value Matterness relationships over transactions, and focus on facilitating crowds of people with their own good ideas and resources, rather than trying to own them. These organizations follow as often as they lead, listen more than they speak, and co-create with their crowds rather than dictate to them.
#GivingTuesday is an annual networked event filled with Matterness. It is not owned by the partner organizations, but powered by participants eager to share their stories and efforts with people around the corner and around the globe. The American Red Cross digital volunteer program has a trained cadre of volunteers ready to support victims of natural disasters in real time and online. It is an effort filled with Matterness between the Red Cross and its volunteers, and the volunteers and the victims. Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal) uses Twitter every day to help homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles find shelter. He enables them to tell their own stories on InvisiblePeople.tv. He also ensures that other Los Angelinos and his online friends are more aware of the plight of homeless people, asks them for their help in problem solving, and gives them important and meaningful ways to contribute to the effort. He leads by instinctively understanding the opportunity for and importance of Matterness.
Sadly, what most people experience when they are in contact with organizations is a lack of Matterness. The fundraising letters that repeatedly misspell a person’s name, even after they complain. The lack of response to an email with a suggestion for a fundraiser. The declarative statements on Facebook providing marching orders to buy tickets to the upcoming gala, rather than conversations about how to co-create fundraising events. A recent survey found that companies ignored more than 70 percent of customer complaints on Twitter. What a huge missed opportunity for organizations to engage in public, in real, unfiltered, conversations with their own people.
The challenge for most organizational leaders is to intentionally put aside their fears about what could possibly go wrong “out there,” where the whackadoodles and wingnuts live. This is the fear of the possible outweighing the reality of the probable. Sure, something could possibly go wrong, but nothing is likely to go wrong. In fact, the bigger risk for organizations is that by hiding behind their walls they become increasingly irrelevant in the world, particularly to younger people accustomed to being in conversation anywhere and at any time.
Focusing on Matterness enables organizations to create a different kind of internal culture, one that is less afraid to step out into the world, more interested in engaging with people inside and outside of their walls, and more willing to listen to and learn from people. All of these constructive conversations, this collective feeling of being heard and valued, will generate a greater sense of common purpose and civility, where individuals and their ideas and efforts matter more in the world, where bullies are pulled out of the shadows and confronted, and where common purpose trumps private interests.
Leadership in a world powered by social media requires fearlessness—the courage to be out in the world in more open and vulnerable ways, trusting that the world will respond with good will, creativity, and generosity. It doesn’t mean doing something different, it means being something different.