21st-century leadership: When an email does do the trick

by HCA17 Jul 2015
Leadership expert and academic Oliver Fischer tells Sam Richardson why writing a good email is now a core leadership skill.

Leadership is often assumed to be integral to the digital revolution; our icons are Apple’s Steve Jobs or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Leaders now pride themselves on flourishing in an era of ‘digital disruption’, through constantly reimagining their businesses and whole industries.

Yet what is rarely reimagined is what constitutes good leadership itself, particularly when it comes to communicating with followers. We hold traditional leadership values, namely charisma, as the polar opposite to modern and supposedly impersonal communication methods, whether emails, Skype or social networking. Even with the most social media-savvy leaders, we assume it’s their strength of character – as demonstrated through face-to-face encounters – which has got them to the top. That’s where we’re wrong.

Oliver Fischer, currently teaching leaders at German media giant Bertelsmann, and previously a fellow at Oxford’s Said Business School, believes our attitude to communication needs to evolve. Fischer‘s been researching the impact of communication through ‘leaner channels’, by which he means a method of communicating which provides less opportunity for feedback: you can’t see someone’s facial expression when they read your email, for instance. Yet he doesn’t believe see such channels as a poor substitute for personal interaction, quite the reverse: “we need to understand that using these leaner channels in a skilful way is a core leadership skill and a core leadership responsibility.”
The challenges facing the 21st-century leader
Fischer’s research is born from necessity. Our traditional image of the charismatic leader, gesturing from the podium, surrounded by cheering employees, is an increasingly unattainable goal. Modern leaders, particularly in Australia, will find themselves dealing with employees in different states, not to mention monitoring operations outsourced to different countries and timezones, even in the case of smaller businesses. Being there in person, for every crisis and pivotal moment, is often physically impossible, and we need to admit so.

“The key link between technology, mediation, and leadership”, Fischer explains “is that leadership very often, if you look at the actual behaviours, the majority of communication doesn’t occur face-to-face, which we believe is the natural mode of communication, but through some sort of medium, whether that’s a skype conversation, or email…the question that I’ve found particularly interesting, is that we tend to assume the effect is usually a negative one, one that affects the impact a leader can have.”
Harnessing group identity
We’re mistaken in that belief, Fischer argues, and to demonstrate why it’s necessary to understand what draws people to a leader. “My research particularly looked at an area called social identity research, within social psychology. And one implication of social identity research is that people want to belong to certain groups, they want to be members of these groups. Being a member of a group is linked to the sort of leadership we want to see; that person personifies the group.”

“Sometimes when we communicate through a lean medium like email, these interactions, because of social psychology on the side of the leader and the follower, can become richer because people compliment what they see”, explains Fischer.
Essentially, because we want to be part of a group, we construct a persona based on the smallest of details, such as the way someone signs off an email, or choice of clothing in their Facebook profile picture, for instance. If you’re the one controlling those details, you can lead people relatively easily, Fischer believes: “sometimes a very lean, quite short message can be much more powerful than a much richer but necessarily more complex face-to-face interaction.”

Undoubtedly the theory appears counterintuitive; how can providing less information make appearing charismatic easier?  Well, because we, the followers, are so intent on identifying with a group, we ignore the lack of information at our disposal.
Fischer cites social media as a good example of this “look at the enormous effects that emerged initially through social networks, that’s a very good example that being part of a group is by no means comprised because communication is at least initially takes place predominantly through lean media”. On these groups, leaders emerge and are occasionally nominated by group members who, Fischer presumes “have no hesitation in saying they know this person, and can describe them and their personality. Whether that’s right or wrong is a different matter.”
What we’re currently doing wrong
Lean media might make it easier to appear charismatic, but also means leaders need to think harder about how they communicate, Fischer explains.
Firstly, lean media doesn’t remove personal like or dislike from the equation. In fact Fischer’s field of study emerged in part from research into online bullying. And whilst you have to be likeable, being able to lead effectively through online media doesn’t mean the end to the culture of showing face, Fischer insists:  “If you have something really difficult to communicate, for which you require feedback, don’t assume that people have exactly the same understanding as you do and ask for feedback.”

Pressurised situations are correspondingly emotional and many of us still struggle to express and identify emotional cues on platforms like email; “this is where face-to-face interactions can help” notes Fischer. “[For] highly ambiguous messages, or communicating in a situation where both sides have a completely different starting point, that’s where communicating through email or other types lean media where you don’t get much feedback gets tricky.”

You can communicate complicated concepts on lean media, according to Fischer, providing “you get the message right”. That doesn’t mean going with the safest option, he cautions: “what you don’t want is a piece of generic propaganda, which is often what tends go through official channels quite easily. Get a sense for what the group that you’re leading really thinks and feels, and if you personify that, if you boil it down to the core message, communicate that through relatively lean media, chances are people will simply perceive you as the appropriate leader at that point in time.”

In practical terms, this means getting the right advice from middle-managers and communications specialists and avoiding those obsessed with crafting the perfect message. Know the different platforms out there, and pick the right one at the right time; essentially the one your target group is actually using, rather than necessarily going with the fancy new blogging platform your IT division just invested in. It’s no longer acceptable to just leave sole responsibility for these leaner channels to others; even if you don’t actually use the channels, you need to know which will best suit your group and your message.
Lean communication and adaptive leadership
Previously at the Saïd Business School, and now at Bertelsmann, Fischer has integrated his research findings into his teaching of business leaders. He teaches ‘adaptive leadership’, “the core of which is learning the art of giving work back to the people who can do it; don’t assume that responsibility always rests with you”. It’s an approach that runs counter to the traditional emphasis on leaders taking responsibility for what happens in their business.

It’s also a style of leadership developed from, and for, the age of digital disruption. Forbes magazine describes adaptive leadership as an extension of those core leadership components of which you’ll already be aware; strategy, action and results. Adaptive leadership adds emotional intelligence, organisational justice, character and development to the mix.

Fischer’s emphasis on lean media communication fits into adaptive leadership, because changing an organisation requires excellent communication all-round, he explains “If you want to change behavioural patterns in a sustainable way that requires learning, and you can only do that through passing a very significant part of the leadership of change element onto those you lead.”

“Expand your toolkit.”, Fischer urges. “Reflect on the unexpected areas of leadership; leadership is not just about giving a big presentation in a carefully stage managed context; it’s much more about smaller things that happen on a daily basis.” Changing an organisation requires you convey your message through all the channels of communications you’re using, including the quick emails and even texts. ”Be aware of the context in which this takes place”, Fischer advises “hone your skills or media selection and media use.”
A core skill of leadership
Leadership is not immune from the digital revolution, as technology is expanding the channels through which leaders need to engage with employees. Fischer’s conclusion, that “lean media can be richer than you think” is a warning to the leader who says they can’t be bothered to use social media, blog, or leaves the writing of their emails to their PA.

However lean media also presents an opportunity for different styles of leadership to emerge. Given that followers build personas and even attribute charisma to mere emails, a leader has more opportunity than ever to craft the right message when not able to physically meet employees. Face-to-face presentations are still important, but now are just one tool amongst many.

For Fischer, his research has direct and very practical consequences for leaders out there; “we need to understand that using these leaner channels in a skilful way is a core leadership skill, and a core leadership responsibility.”


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