Mal Fletcher
How The Internet Has Changed Leadership

What 25 Years of Web Culture Means to Your Leadership

Yesterday, to celebrate the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web, I used the WayBack Machine site to peek at the earliest iterations of one of my own websites.

Undoubtedly I was proud of it at the time. It was first set up in 1996, if memory serves me correctly, and the first version listed on the Machine was from 1998.

By today's standards, of course, it is positively cringe-worthy. It looks like something a cave painter might have put together in comparison with today's all-singing-all-dancing, bells-and-whistles sites.

When I sat down to create this Jurassic wonder, I could not have known just how much this new technology was going to change my life. (Thankfully, I did have an inkling that this was going to be a game-changer - and was quick to lecture any of more my poor friends who would listen, without understanding how it all worked.)

Most new technologies touch one or two areas of our lives, but the web has arguably impacted a wider range of human interests, services and activities than any other modern tool.

Some of that influence has been very negative. Easy access porn; the black market internet trade in weapons, drugs and people; the growing number of bullies who terrorise victims from behind a veil of cyber anonymity - these are just a few of the downsides.

Yet the positives are also very clear. We buy, sell, bank, play, go to school, entertain ourselves, apply for jobs, do our jobs and talk to each other via devices conveniently hooked up to the web.

And we've not yet seen the full impact of new, emerging web tools, featuring everything from wearable technologies to the internet of things.

Not the least of the areas human activity to feel the internet's impact is the leadership process. Specifically, it has changed how people see and interact with leaders, whether in business, politics or civic life.

A quarter century of cyber-sphere activity has not altered the need for leadership. Indeed, if anything it has possibly intensified that need.

In the face of a storm of change, people look for reference points that do not shift. They seek out models for behaviour and thought who reflect the positive potential of human kind.

They look for individuals who can make sense of change and add value to it and who possess the skillset and integrity to help others achieve great things in ethical ways.

The need for leadership of a certain type is as great as ever it was. What the now seemingly ubiquitous web has changed, however, is the way in which leaders get things done.

Among other things, it has shifted the balance between authority and transparency and between trust based upon status as opposed to trust founded on personal interactions.

Here are just a few of the ways in which the presence of the world wide web has changed the leadership process. Forward-looking leaders will acknowledge the shifts and make way for them in their day-to-day interactions and thinking.


The digital age has given rise to a trust revolution. This is impacting everything from politics, to science, economics and business.

In the commercial world, it first found expression through companies like eBay, which rely more on trust than any other currency. The same foundation now drives micro-finance lending, shared ownership models and crowd-sourcing.

The internet is like Dorothy's canine friend Toto. It has encouraged us to go behind the curtain of aloof power; bringing to our attention how very small and human the gigantic Wizards of this world really are.

Power can no longer expect to be heard simply because of its booming voice, or lofty manner. Now more than ever, leadership must earn the right to be heard - through accessibility, integrity and a commitment to pursuing shared goals.

Reverse Mentoring

In the post-digital age, people are increasingly impatient with a perceived lack of expertise among those who manage their work, or whose policies shape their future.

Young people in particular are intolerant of one-way mentoring - that is, leadership which assumes the flow of useful information is always in a downward direction, from the leader to the led.

In many cases, Millennials are much better educated than the managers and leaders for whom they work. Wise leaders are quick to spot gaps in their own professional knowledge.

Rather than puffing themselves up, allowing hubristic vanity to replace useful knowledge, they look for other ways to demonstrate unique expertise. Younger people are aware of deficiencies in their own knowledge base, particularly when it comes "street smarts", the type of learning that only hard knocks can provide.

Effective leaders will encourage reverse mentoring, through which young adults will be encouraged to mentor older members of the team in areas where they have an edge. How to use digital tools is one good example.


Good leaders recognise that people's growing engagement with the internet has made them more insistent upon interactive experiences in other areas of life.

The designers of internet games have a term for this. They call it the "architecture of participation". People no longer expect just to play a game; they want to alter it in some way as they go. They want to know that they are shaping the outcome, in a way that simulates, at least in a basic way, the flow of real life where choices affect outcomes.

Participation was given a huge boost by the introduction to the internet of the "wiki", the piece of code that allows users to alter or add to websites as they consume. Wikipedia is actually the world's largest participation fest. Indeed, participation is part of its stated reason for existence.

For leaders, this means that team members and consumers need to be given an active role in shaping products and services. We've moved into the world of iSolutions, in the face of cyber isolation.

People want to feel they have an ongoing, growing dialogue with the companies they frequent. They want to know they have more than a manager at the bank - they want a friend, and they expect the relationship to be truly two-way.

Wise leaders are even turning the recruitment process into a dialogue. They're recognising that applicants no longer expect a job interview to be a one-way street.

Without saying as much, young applicants are mentally "interviewing" or screening their interviewer. They are weighing up the relative pros and cons of investing their time - as valuable to them as money - in this particular enterprise.

Leaders need to turn recruitment into a dialogue from the very start of the process - turning online entry sites into focus group studies and the like, where young people are asked for their contributions toward vision and strategy, before they've even committed to a job.

This demonstrates that the leadership are not afraid of new ideas, or of generational change.


The age of mass communication has given rise to the era of mass collaboration.

People are excited about the possibility of cooperating with other individuals over large distances, to solve problems large and small.

As a result, they are drawn to organisations, including businesses and civic groups, that offer the promise of alliance-building. The globalising impact of the internet has given rise to an impatience with the type of closed innovation cultures that once roamed the business world.

The public have little patience for groups that follow a you-and-me-against-the-world philosophy. Instead, they consciously or unconsciously look for groups who will engage them with a you-me-and-the-world-against-the-problem mentality.

Wise leaders build alliance-seeking into their organisational DNA.


The evidence is clear: in the age of digital communications, attention spans are shrinking. According to one recent study, the average attention span for people engaged in online activities is around eight seconds.

I've written before on this site about the growing challenge of recognised psychological disorders, such as Communication Addiction Disorder, and the related problem of "constant partial attention".

Psychiatrists in the US used what is known as the Narcissistic Personal Index to track shifts in self-obsessed behaviours in students between 1976 and 2006. They found that the incidence of recognisably narcissistic behaviour patterns grew noticeably after the turning of the millennium.

Some postulated that this was a result of a hyper-nurturing effect through indulgent parenting. However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that it is may be partly related to instant gratification technologies.

The internet has made it possible for people in the developed world to get almost anything they want without having to wait for it. The emerging generations may grown up with little understanding of delayed gratification.

For leaders, this means that longer-term, big-picture aspirations must now be broken not just into medium-term goals, but into very short-term tasks. In some cases, talking about the long-term is wasted unless the immediate focus is almost entirely on a short-term activity, the impact of which can be immediately measured and communicated.


One of the great benefits of the internet has been the opportunity to bring convergence between different forms of media.

Where my first website was all about text - with even low-resolution photos slowly up download times - today's sites look naked without a mixture of video, audio, moving graphics and text.

This spells trouble for leaders who try to motivate and instruct their teams in a mono-sensory way. PowerPoint revolutionised business presentations and meetings. Today, it is old-hat technology. Prezi has put the emphasis on convergence of media, with constant movement and pizzazz. Doubtless it too will one day look old-hat.

I don't know what the next big thing will be, but I'm certain of this: it won't be any less visually rich, immersive or entertaining.


This has to be one of the biggest of all the internet's impacts on civic and business life.

In the post-RFID age, where huge information can be built into a very small device, the size of one's database is not what impresses others.

Information is no longer the key to advancement. Innovation is now at least as important as qualification - in fact, it is probably more so. It's not what you know, it's how you apply what you know to add value and solve problems.

The McKinsey management consultancy in the US discovered a few years ago that, since the mid-1990s, the percentage of new recruits hired by companies because they had an MBA was falling. At the same time, the percentage of recruits given a job because they had a BA was growing.

Successful business leaders are becoming increasingly aware that an awareness of business and management skills and practices will not necessarily lead to growth amidst the digital revolution.

What is needed are team members who can think out of the box, who see new breakthroughs where others only focus on benchmarks.


Finally, the internet has given rise in some quarters to a boost in activism. Of course, there is the danger that people can re-tweet something about an issue and mistake this for action. However, the web has made it possible for people who might otherwise see themselves only as passive consumers to become activists even in small ways.

The future is changed as people learn to make different decisions. When enough people do this - when the number reaches some kind of critical mass - social movements are born.

Internet technology has made it easier for people share their concerns about the world they live in; it means that they can get others involved in pet projects quickly and cheaply.

For some, this relatively arms-length cyber activism might lead to something a little more costly and life-defining.

Wise leaders ensure that whatever their enterprise, it contains at least an element of altruistic intent.

The most successful leaders will be able to go beyond the normal bounds of Community Service Responsibility projects, into territory that sees producing social innovation as a central part of the company's role.

Indeed, for some entrepreneurs, social enterprise and social innovation have now become the name of the game - they have essentially built businesses entirely on the need to improve the common good.

It's twenty-five years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee formulated the first web page. Since then, an estimated 630 million websites have sprung up globally.

Around one third of the globe's population uses this medium and 72 percent of British people say they use it to buy goods and services.

We're only perhaps halfway through the digital revolution and we can only guess at what the future holds for the internet.

One thing is certain, though: leaders need to understand how it altering thought processes and social organisations. And they need to take the positive lessons on board, or risk going the way of my first website...

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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