When we visit a client, we always hope that management will fully embrace online networks. Making a success of a social intranet or online community is so much easier when a director is fully on board and acts as a digital leader who leads by example and does not throw in the towel at the first sign of resistance. But what exactly is a digital leader, and what is it that they do?

Successfully implementing a social intranet or other online network requires the support of the formal leaders from the organization. If they are not encouraging, a network will never grow beyond being a private playground for employees. The risk of management being uninvolved is that signals from the organization on the platform go unseen. Any complaints, suggestions and ideas left there will fall on deaf ears. If there is never any actual impact, not many employees will remain active on the platform in the long run. What’s more, a social intranet is a completely different instrument than other business applications, and the results gained thereby are often more indirect and difficult to measure. Adoption of the platform will also have a longer run-up period, and results will thus take longer to become evident. This is why it is essential to have leaders who are patient and who believe in the power of online networks. This is why it is part of our method to involve the leaders from the organization as well, and to provide them with personalized training in hopes of making them just as excited about this new way of working online as we are.

Network leadership

For us, digital leadership comprises various elements. One of these elements is that leaders should be aware that their social capital is their greatest asset. They deploy their online networks (social intranet, communities and social media) in a targeted way, with the goal of exerting influence, requesting feedback, building a profile and/or coming up with solutions to problems together with employees. Good network leadership is characterized by an extensive knowledge of network dynamics and knowing when and where to intervene. A network leader knows his employees best: he (or she) knows who the informal leaders are within the organizations, which people share information the quickest, but also how each participant in the process handles their job. If desired, he can use social network analysis to gain insight into the organizational network.

Persuasion and authenticity

I’ve written about organizations of the future operating as networks. The nature of a network is non-hierarchic. In such an organization it would be counterproductive to command power. Instead, a digital leader uses (online) dialogue in order to reach his (or her) goals. His role is to keep the mission of the organization on track and to utilize the network in order to do so. Because assigning tasks is a thing of the past, tactics of persuasion will become the new guiding principle. He will have to become well-versed in storytelling: telling stories in order to impel employees to action. Steve Denning’s various books clearly describe how this works in practice. The new leader will communicate personally, and not through the communications department. Authenticity and vulnerability are key words here. To build trust among employees, the leader will also have be approachable and vulnerable himself. This is the only way to ensure employees will feel safe and free to share their challenges and questions.


The digital leader has a clear vision of wat his goals for a community or social intranet are. He knows that the platform is only a small part of a large-scale process of change, and sees it as the first necessary step to be taken by any organization on the road to digital transformation. Because he is aware that change is essential for the survival of the organization, he will keep pushing against resistance. It takes blood, sweat and tears to change routines and behaviours. A leader will realise that the way he’s used to working will change, but that the existing hierarchy can be utilized to achieve the ideal of a network organization. This is because, certainly at the beginning, a network needs central guidance. Digital leadership does not mean watching from the sidelines as everything takes care of itself.

stadia van online netwerken
Different stages of network formation. Central guidance is needed at the start.

Formal and informal leadership

The manager of the future will not face all of this alone. Within the network, so-called informal leaders will float to the top automatically. The leader of the future will make sure to create space to facilitate these new informal leaders. This can be done in a formal way, by freeing them up to focus on the network (for instance through additional hours, remuneration, a leadership or ambassador program, the use of their own network), but also in an unofficial way, by helping them tackle challenges or actively mentoring them. Informal leaders are very vulnerable during the transitional stage leading up to a network. Middle management in particular will try to retain control and power, and an active mandate from higher up will be crucial in preventing these initiatives from being nipped in the bud.


Peter Staal

Community Building Consultant at Bind