You're a leader. You're also a human being. So, in 2017, you're using social media.

You have lots of company, of course: 2 billion people on Facebook; 467 million on LinkedIn, 330 million on Twitter; even 170 million on Snap. Among those users, it's safe to say, are virtually all of the people you're trying to lead--and they're watching everything you say and do.

So how can you use your social media habits to lead more effectively--or at least make sure you don't undermine yourself?

Mike Erwin and Joe Quinn are the founder and director of leadership development, respectively, at Team RWB, a nonprofit veterans' organization. They're also experienced leaders, veterans, and West Point graduates who returned to their alma mater to teach. I first met them more than a decade ago when I was researching my book In a Time of War.

Recently, they shared with me some of their advice for leaders on how to use social media proactively and effectively. Here's their advice in their own words (with a few of my edits):

Here's Mike and Joe's advice:

When we graduated from West Point in the spring of 2002 and headed off to lead soldiers in wartime, our mentors gave us some important advice: "Be present with your troops. Don't lead by email."

Back then, our computers were the size of microwave ovens. It took a solid minute to text "hello," using a Motorola flip phone. And, social media was limited to a list of faceless friends on AOL's Instant Messenger.

Yet, the leadership guidance we received then remains relevant, even as technology and social media has redefined both what presence means, and how we work. As Doist CEO, Amir Salihefendic, observed recently, the way we work is steadily shifting from clustered urban offices to a remote-first paradigm, in which employees can work from anywhere as long as they have a computer and an Internet connection.

As our work evolves, and as social media becomes even more ubiquitous, the way we lead needs to evolve with it. Here are five suggestions on how to leverage social media as a leader.

1. Be deliberate

It all starts with being intentional.  Social media can be a huge waste of time, and a drain on your energy--if you let it. So stay in control. Depending on your leadership position, whether you are the Secretary of the Army leading 1.5 million soldiers, or a manager of 10 employees, your position may dictate the amount of time spent on social media in order to be effective.

Whether it's 30 minutes in the morning and then another 30 minutes in the late afternoon, the key is to be deliberate about focusing your time on effective use and not just scattering usage throughout the day.

2. Know your connections

Know what pages you are following, who you're connecting with and why. Even if you don't often repost their content or react to them, the list of people and organizations you are following will be visible to everyone. And you should expect that the people you're in charge of leading will check out the list.

As the old adage goes, "Garbage in, garbage out." If you're deliberate, then every interaction will count, and social media will not be a waste of time, but a force multiplier for your team and organization.

3. Listen to the people you're leading

When it comes to leadership, quite simply, other people matter. And, what better way to know what's going on in other's lives than following and listening to your people on social media?

When people share a story in person, they are relaying the details of what's important to them. The same goes for social media. So if you're reading posts about someone's dog dying or mother being sick, they are relaying what is important to them. They do so with the hope that people will demonstrate empathy, and will meaningfully engage with them.

4. Engage with others

Don't be a social media voyeur! You should "like," throw hearts, and leave meaningful comments on your team's pages for important moments.  

A key aspect of social media for leaders is actually leaving a trace, so that the people you lead know you're paying attention. Additionally, just like in real life interactions, the time you spend to craft a well thought out, grammatically correct comment, whether humorous, empathetic or encouraging, is what people appreciate. Take the time to engage.  Leaders who use social media well don't just use it as a place to put out information that is important to them.

5. Inspire

Social media has opened the doors to divisiveness and tons of negativity that is now entering our collective consciousness at an unforeseeable rate. To quote Yeats, don't be one of the "weasels fighting in a hole," but choose to be the inspiration this world desperately craves.

Share yourself. Tell your own story. Be vulnerable. Be courageous in showing your authentic self as a model for your friends, family and the people you lead.

Share inspiring stories, and quotes that bring people energy. Lift people up! Both collectively and individually. When someone on your team does something great, publically ask your mutual friends on social media to applaud that person. It will strengthen your relationship, your team, and your organization as whole. Be the inspiration.  

As technology advances, social media proliferates, and remote-first work evolves, as leaders we must evolve with it. Social media doesn't have to be a waste of our time, but a force-multiplying tool to deliberately listen to, engage with and inspire the people we lead.

Published on: Nov 1, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.