There’s no argument that social media is now a primary domain for networking and learning connections, receiving news and updates, and staying on top of what’s going on in peoples’ lives that we value. As such, I believe leaders need to seriously consider this domain as one that contributes to their overall leader presence, despite personal opinions about social media. Good commanders go where their Soldiers are; good leaders go where their people are. This idea applies to social media. Our young Soldiers, who are Millennials and now even younger, are on their phones 150 times a day. Why would we not access that rich opportunity to communicate with our people in a domain that they value and already spend so much time in?
So, I gave a commander social media profile a try over the last 90 days. Here is what happened and what I learned.
Organizational vs. Leader Profile
I distinguish between an organization’s general social media account and an account specifically for the leader of said organization. Posting a note, regardless of type of content, from the “Zulu Company” account has very different implications for your people than that same note as the “Commander of Zulu Company.” By leveraging a specific leader profile, you communicate that I, as the formal leader of our organization, determine this (insert the topic of the post) as important and want to share it with you. I believe it has similar impacts or emphasis as standing in front of your people and speaking to them. Where an organizational account may share pictures of a recent event, which sends the message of “check out this great event we did and celebrate our people,” the same post from the leader’s profile says, “I value this event and what we accomplished; I am proud of our people and the great work they did / are doing.”
So, What’s the “Why”?
Why should leaders go through the effort of establishing and maintaining these formal leader social media accounts? What is the value of these enduring efforts? I’ve found a few impactful ways that my leader social media account(s) helps me better lead and influence my organization.
- Leader presence: It is a way to improve and showcase your presence as a leader. It shows my people that I am out among our ranks and spending time with our people. I may go visit just a small group from our greater organization, but by sharing a photo from that moment, the rest of our people can see it and celebrate it with us. It captures and maintains moments throughout our organization and helps me bring an elevated level of energy to our people.
- Communicate what is important: What you share on social media shows your people what is important. That can help improve or achieve organizational clarity on what should be important to everyone and where we should focus our efforts and attention.
- Leader development: Depending on the size of your organization, you may not be able to have direct leader development touchpoints with all of your people (primarily battalion commanders and above). If that is the case, your social media account(s) can be a creative way to share leader development resources to encourage others to check out. This way, you improve the tacit leader knowledge across your formations.
- Celebrate and highlight your people: Everyone wants to be a valued member of the team; celebrating them and their accomplishments in front of everyone else via social media is an easy way to do that.
- Message internally and externally: This is a way to both create moments and message what’s important internally to your people, but also to be a good salesman of your organization to outside stakeholders.
Personally, I’ve found that what I share on my leader social media profiles center around three types of posts.
- Celebrating our people and important events each day or week.
- Sharing leader development resources to educate and inspire our people toward improved leadership.
- Sharing personal thoughts, which can take a number of different paths. As an example, one thought that I’ve made routine through my social media platforms are #whiteboardwednesday leadership quotes. Other leader thoughts can include reminders for upcoming events (social gatherings, etc.) or notes to communicate perspective providing the “why” for recent decisions or situations.
What I’ve Learned and Things I’m Looking at Next
My efforts over the last 90 days have largely relied on exploratory learning; I tested it out for a quarter to determine the value and what to do better or differently. My primary reflections and lessons learned are below. I’ve refined my methods to maximize impact while making my efforts sustainable over my time in my leadership position.
- Be deliberate in the platforms you use: You can’t use them all…or at least I can’t. I started out using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. I quickly found out that I couldn’t manage all four. I narrowed it down to Facebook and Instagram. I stuck with Facebook for its platform versatility, where sharing photos and website links are both easy; I kept Instagram because that is where I received the highest volume of followers, meaning I was reaching out to the largest audience possible. I love Twitter, but it didn’t have the reach that warranted my time and I never figured out how to best use Snapchat while remaining authentic to who I am.
- I achieved influence with a lot of organizational stakeholders: Because I work with United States Military Academy (USMA) Cadets right now, their parents are natural stakeholders. And they’ve started following me online. The best way to explain this influence is through an anecdote: one vehicle we use at USMA to teach and reinforce Cadet standards and discipline is through barracks room cleanliness and organization. To showcase that I value this, I highlight the best Cadet room for cleanliness that day on my Instagram account. Eventually, I learned that parents have begun asking their Cadets why they have not yet won the best Bulldog room on Instagram! So, I now have some Cadets motivated to improve their room standards due to a little challenge from their parents! This type of influence can be easily translated to spouses and families at large.
- Use it!: It’s worse to have a leader social media account and not use it than just not having one at all. Inaction with your social media profile sends a strong message to your people that you started something and didn’t stick with it. If you don’t use it, delete it.
- Improve leadership resources: I have not yet figured out how to best share leader development resources on Instagram, so I am not sharing these type of posts as much as I want. I’m still working to learn creative ways to do this effectively. And to be honest, because I don’t share them on Instagram yet, I don’t share them on Facebook either; I don’t have the Facebook following yet to make it worth the effort in my opinion.
- Looking toward YouTube moving forward: I believe COL Eric Lopez and BG Ross Coffman (then COL Coffman, BCT commander) do/did a great job leveraging YouTube as a leader social media platform. Using simple, short videos, you can send messages to your Soldiers and directly communicate with them. Though I’m not prepared to commit to it yet (and I may not do so in my current job, but am considering for future positions), I am considering to expand into YouTube myself. Gone are the days where we send emails or memos down the chain of command as a means to communicate important matters with our people; that just isn’t effective anymore. We need to flatten organizational communication hierarchies and be able to reach everyone directly. Leaders like BCT commanders (leading 4,000 Soldiers) cannot easily have all of those Soldiers physically standing in front of them so they can give a speech; even if they can, mass speeches like that quickly tune people out. I envision possible ideas of unit leaders, such as battalion and BCT commanders, recording a short video once per month or so to define reality for their people, inform them of what is next, what is going well, and what they need to work on – basically, being transparent and communicating perspective with their people. If you place yourself on Soldiers’ YouTube streams, they are much more likely to listen to what you have to say. This is still a thought I’m forming and refining, but one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Here are a few additional resources for anyone looking to investigate leadership and social media more. As always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts and recommendations! Comment below or via social media!
- The Military Leader Podcast episode with COL Eric Lopez
- From the Green Notebook: On Senior Leaders and Social Media
- War on the Rocks: Harnessing Social Media for Military Power
- From the Green Notebook: The Power of Our Connections
Finally, below are links to my two current leader social media accounts, which I share just as examples to check out. I offer them not as the standards to follow because I am certainly still learning how to best leverage social media myself to extend my influence as a leader. I share these as examples to see trends in what I share, how often I do, and even to identify the gaps that I am ignoring in my social media strategy. Note about my current leadership role to consider as you reference my social media platforms: I serve as a tactical officer of a USMA Cadet company (approximately 120 Cadets). Though I serve as the formal commander of the company, there is a Cadet chain of command to include company commander so they can lead and run themselves. Thus, my role centers on teaching, advising, and coaching the Cadets as they lead, run, and organize the company, and as they make decisions. I aim to have a quality leader presence in my role, but not so much so that I overshadow my Cadet commander.
This post consists of my personal views only and does not reflect that of the United States Military Academy or the US Army.
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