This year Davos will focus on ‘Leadership’ as an important issue, worthy of attention from the great and the good who will be meeting at this annual event of global significance. Presumably this theme was chosen for the no-doubt important role it will play in the world’s recovery from the credit crunch, downturn, recession, or any other name that is invoked for the current crisis. Interestingly this follows last year’s theme of Collaboration, which was no doubt linked to Web 2.0 being the topic on everybody’s lips in 2008. The Collaboration theme had some obvious technology connections which I blogged about at the time, particularly around a principle that comes up again in the discussion of leadership.
First let me use the words of Carol Bartz, the new CEO of Yahoo, who in a recent interview with the Economist gave a definition that for me really makes the point; ‘There is a real difference between managing and leading. Management winds up being the allocation of resources against tasks. Leadership focuses on people. My definition of a leader is someone who helps people succeed’.

If leadership is about people, and creating a collective confidence to solve challenges by working together, then the selection of Leadership as a Davos topic makes sense. But what about the role technology plays in taking leadership to new levels? The obvious case study is Barack Obama, dubbed ‘the Blackberry President’ after being seen constantly using this device throughout his campaign. Since he took office, he has won his battle with White House staff to keep the device, as he doesn’t want to be ‘out of touch’ with people outside his immediate political circle. However the title of ‘Internet / Web president’ might be more appropriate thanks to his successful adoption of the medium to connect with and mobilise people, as exemplified in his using social media and blogs throughout his campaign.
The New York Times puts it quite simply that ‘were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president’. The raw statistics show the extent to which Obama, and his supporters, were able to directly reach engage with the public and gain their support for his ‘leadership’ bid to be President; 13 million people had their email address added to the campaign listings; 3 million people donated $100 or less using the Web as a mechanism to take campaign funding into new ground; 2 million created their individual profiles on Obama’s own social networking site, MyBarackObama.com; and out of 1.2 million who volunteered, 20,000 were directly trained in the art of ‘community organising’. The question is now whether this remarkable shift in the social political scene can continue to support the way in which Obama will governs?
Maybe ’Leads’ rather than Leadership is the better word. Politics has been distinctly representational, ie due to the limitations in communications, knowledge, experience, etc we, the people, elect someone to be our representative and to participate on our behalf. These ‘Leaders’, or Politicians, have shown themselves to be generally less technology savvy than those they represent, and therefore have little idea that many of the people they are representing are informed of events as quickly, or even more quickly, than they are. In most countries this manifests itself through a decline in active support, or interest in the current political model, and almost universally as reduced respect for politicians and their abilities. At the same time, through the medium of Web and other communication tools, it has become possible for people to ‘organise’ themselves into communities with shared views, so the spread of views is increasing and with it the number of pressure groups.
Has Obama had a vision to see he must use technology and the very different capabilities of society today in a different manner? If so how will he create the ultimate social community to provide grass roots democracy through technology bearing in mind that what on one hand has been a uniting force, on the other is also creating an increasingly fragmented society. And finally, will there be lessons in this for business leaders so that they too can allow their global enterprises too achieve similar results.
All in all, the only conclusion that I can reach is that we have just seen the power of social networking, and how innovation in applying the technology is really game changing. Quite a lesson in the reality of the World in which we live, work and play today. Innovation? It’s not just about new technology; it is about the way we understand and apply the new capabilities that is creating new possibilities. The perspective from the ‘wise’ at Davos on leadership, in today’s on line technology society will indeed be interesting!