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Thought Leadership 2.0: The Relational Leadership Update

Thought Leadership 2.0: The Relational Leadership Update

Thought Leadership 2.0: The Relational Leadership Update

The term “thought leader” has become a major buzzword. I’ll admit, I still kinda cringe when I hear it. What the heck does a thought leader do? So you have thoughts and probably a whole lot to say. Great. Congratulations. You’ve added a buzzword into your bio and probably more noise to the internet.
I’ve tweeted about my opinion about thought leadership, as it relates to how I prefer to be referred to as a professional:
https://twitter.com/lizgross144/status/906913043807965185
https://twitter.com/josieahlquist/status/906934608553328640
I believe if you want to step up to the digital microphone, you need to be informed and not just an digital influencer with a loud opinion. As you might guess, I was surprised at #7 on Inside Higher Ed’s 2018 trend report: presidents as thought leaders. At first, I was a little skeptical. But reading on, I found myself nodding in agreement.
The way that the article described thought leadership was a huge shift from my preconceived notions. It also didn’t hurt that the article cited a piece I had written a few months ago about how University presidents can genuinely engage and build community through Twitter. The authors in this trend report recommended that presidents use social media to inspire others through what they post, but it went one step further. They advised that presidents actually engage in important and even difficult conversations.
One quote, in particular, stuck out to me:

“Colleges and universities have an obligation — and an opportunity — to foster informed debate and model what civil discourse looks like in 2018.”

It’s a powerful statement and a skill I find professionals in all fields tend to lack. We’re seeing more higher education leaders embrace and amplify their (informed) voices through digital media, and this trend calls on them to step it up. Many campus executives aren’t afraid to speak out about issues, which can lead to some incredible dialogue.


As I started to dig deeper into what makes a campus a thought leader, I found this quote from Daniel Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst at Serious Insights:

“Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. Thought leadership should intrigue, challenge, and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.” 

For all industries, it’s time to stop using thought leadership as a meaningless buzzword or “holy grail” title. Campus leadership should instead be using the principles of thought leadership to build relationships and start important dialogues.
In my podcast interview with Dillard University President, Dr. Walter Kimbrough on Josie & The Podcast he uses the term “Truth Tellers”

“We have to have truth tellers in every society… there will always be  scared people and there will always  be truth tellers.” And Walter believes that “Part of his job is to raise  consciousness to these issues.”

So how does an executive or senior leader on campus raise consciousness to issues while representing their university? I’m sharing a framework for those that may have reservations or aren’t sure where to start. This framework is all about developing knowledge and skills that help leaders align their values and even the university mission into their social media presence.
I want this framework to help empower senior leadership to raise the consciousness of issues, while role modeling civil discourse and debate.


Relational Leadership + Knowing, Being, Doing

In the text Exploring Leadership, relational leadership is explained as the process of those: “engaged in it to be knowledgeable (knowing), to be aware of self and others (being), and to act (doing)” (Komives, 2015, p. 78). While this text and even the theory was written for college student leadership development, it’s hard to ignore the application for ALL leaders!
Parker Palmer also called these components head, heart, and practice – which I also love. This holistic leadership model is built on the following belief: leadership is purposeful, empowering, inclusive, ethical, and a process.
When we start digging through the scholarship and application of relational leadership, it’s difficult to find literature on how the process applies online. The rest of this post remixes relational leadership to be as specific and applicable as possible for those looking to connect the buzz around thought leadership into digital environments for a lasting impact.
Knowing Header
“Know yourself and others; engage yourself in learning new information as you develop the competencies required in your role.”  

What you stand for

Before you dive headfirst into this type of leadership philosophy online, you have to know what you stand for, including recognizing your values, mission, and vision. You need to deeply understand our personal values and guiding principles, then translate them into a unique point of view which can come out on twitter, facebook and more.

The facts

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article called A Checklist for Transformation. #1 on their checklist?

“Go beyond the dissemination of information to evaluation, connection, and application.”

This key principle translates to social media through having the skills to validate information and create/share knowledge that is built from informed practice and application. Working on a college campus, we have access to treasures of knowledge found in the skills scholars employed on our campus, to the thousands of publications found in our very own libraries.
–>> Use both human capital and campus resources to ensure your statements and even beliefs are backed up.

Your role in the process

You don’t need to lead or have an opinion about every conversation out there. It’s incredibly obvious when people jump into a trending topic or news story because it’s trending, not because they have a stake in what’s happening. Make sure you stick to the issues that truly matter to you and your campus; that’s how you make a real (and genuine) impact.


Don’t forget that your position on campus may also impact your role. People have different expectations of what you communicate about and how you communicate it based on the position you hold. Understanding those expectations gives you a starting point for developing your relational leadership skills.

Your community

Finally, you have to know the culture of the institution that you’re representing. Though many view this as a personal branding move, you can’t forget that every post you make reflects back on your campus, office, and community. Luckily, that reflection is mutual and helps establish your credibility as a digital leader. Developing your personal voice within those considerations are tricky, which is why I recommend the following if you are in doubt:

  • Align every post with your university mission and goals.
  • Get to know the unwritten rules, culture, and norms of your campus. Seek out colleagues that have worked on-campus for awhile, which may also include asking straightforward questions to you who you report to. From the board of regents, Chancellor or even an assistant director. Get them on board for your goals to make an impact on and offline.
  • Learn from other active digital leaders on your campus or professionals who work at comparable institutions (ie state systems, HBCUs, Jesuit, independent colleges, etc),
  • Review your institution’s social media guidelines or policies. Further, connect with Human Resources when in doubt.
  • For presidents/chancellors who want further support, call upon your University Relations/Communications/Marketing office and maybe even your legal department. 

Being Header
“Be open to difference and value other perspectives.”

Quality over quantity

Let’s face it: spamming the like button on tweets doesn’t have the same impact as a personalized reply or retweet. Don’t stress out over interacting with as many followers as you can all the time. Focus your efforts on high-quality interactions and messages that will leave a lasting impression, not just a notification. For a great example of someone who focuses on quality interactions, check out Michael Benson’s twitter account. His tweets about EKU’s snow day and responses to tweets about it show just how much he cares about the campus he leads!

Be a resource, not a bullhorn

When sharing knowledge, it’s important to focus on benefiting others rather than reaping personal benefits from your interactions. Go into interactions with the intent of learning, not just telling. Center your interactions on providing value to the people around you. For example, some twitter chats become billboards to bad thought leadership, with people only making statements/replies to the prompts and not actually interacting with the other people in the twitter chat.

  • Find and share opportunities for your community, not just for yourself. This can be as simple as posting a training opportunity or networking event on your campus.
  • Use sites like HelpAReporter.com (HARO) and Quora to find people who could benefit from your expertise.
  • View your posts as conversation starters, then take an active role in the conversations they start. Give the people who interact with your content thoughtful responses – hey if it fits your personality maybe include gif or emoji!
  • Don’t just wait for people to come to you. Actively seek out conversations and questions that your expertise can add value to.

Commit to social responsibility

Committing to social responsibility shouldn’t just be lip service. You have to be willing to confront behaviors online while still being open to difference. When you see something that doesn’t sit right with you, you can’t just idly scroll by. Taking action in a respectful manner is a sure sign of a true commitment to social responsibility.
This tweet from Michael V. Drake, president of Ohio State University, is a solid example of this commitment:


Doing Header
“Practice listening skills, coalition  building, interpersonal skills, and effective civil discourse”

Meaning making

Creating meaning for others requires you to pay attention to the ideas, thoughts, and feelings that you inspire in others. You have to connect what you’re saying and doing with the world that your followers live in. The journey from information to meaning is summed up in Exploring Leadership:

“We are continually challenge to see that data become information, information becomes translated into knowledge, knowledge influences understanding, understanding translates into wisdom, and wisdom becomes meaningful thought and action” (139).

How you frame and reframe issues is one very important way that we create meaning. As Psychology Today notes,

“There is no such thing as the view from everywhere; or the view from nowhere. There’s always a point of view, and it biases the view by emphasizing or including certain aspects of the situation or experience while omitting or devaluing others.”

Two researchers from FrameWorks Institute wrote a great guide on how to frame issues on social media, which you can read here.

(Social) Listening skills 

Social listening is the online form of active listening, and it goes beyond just monitoring your social media notifications. Dr. Liz Gross explains: social listening is all about,

identifying hidden opportunities to find prospective students, their family members, and alumni who are talking about your institution, rather than directly to it.”

It requires you to focus on the context of the conversations, not just the content.
To up your social listening game, start with the institution you represent. Give it a search, then take note of the context of the tweets that mention it. Is the sentiment surrounding it more positive or negative? Are there certain events or people who dominate the conversations surrounding this institution? Asking these questions can help you identify new opportunities to interact and engage in ways that actually matter to your community.

Ethical congruence

Before you post, pause and consider how it fits into your ethical framework. The best way to build trust is to make sure your actions are congruent with your words, and that all of that is congruent with your personal ethics. When faced with a difficult ethical decision that will play out online, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there any information missing? 
  • What is your intent for this post, what could be its’ unintended impact? Could it be misunderstood/misread?
  • What are the consequences of this decision, both long and short-term?
  • How would your decision look if it were reported on in a public forum? ie: CNN, local news, the campus newspaper
  • Am I being fully transparent?

Civil confrontation

How you handle conflict and incivility are what makes you a true relational leader.Here are a few ways you can make sure your responses focus more on the “civil” part of civil confrontation than the “confrontation” part:

  • Follow the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated.
  • Respect the fact that you may not change other people’s minds. Make it your goal to reach a mutual understanding, not necessarily agreement.
  • Remember that there’s a real person on the other side of the screen.
  • As soon as you start to feel your emotions run high, step away from the conversation. You can always come back to it later.
  • Avoid name-calling and “you” statements. Use “I” statements (I think, I feel, I find, etc.) instead.
  • Stay open to perspectives that challenge your worldview.
  • Be willing to admit your mistakes. Humility goes a long way in keeping confrontation civil.

Practice renewal

Life (everywhere – both on and offline) can be exhausting. Overstimulation from a full email inbox, back-to-back meetings, and continual social media notifications. You need to intervene on your own behalf, infusing reflection, contemplation, and learning in everything you do. Stay open, actively seek out new information even if it challenges your worldview, and stay in tune with your whole self (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc).
Relational Leadership Quote (Josie Ahlquist)

Final Thoughts

In the age of thought leadership and influencers, there’s a huge opportunity to go beyond the buzzwords. I’d like to think of relational leadership as thought leadership 2.0, taking what works from thought leaders but reframing the focus on broader outcomes for society, not just ourselves and even on social media.
Overall, your priority should be sharing meaningful content that leads to positive outcomes for others, not on being called a thought leader. Further, no matter how many followers you have, you can still be a leader. What’s important is the positive effect you have on the people who follow you.
If this post has you reconsidering the way you approach your social media platforms, I have good news! I offer executive coaching opportunities that will give you the tools and confidence to harness social media in your leadership position or executive job search. For more information on what my coaching services can do for you, click here.Did I miss something in this framework? Let me know in the comments.

If you’re ready to connect with your campus, you’ll love this BRAND NEW resource that I’ve created called Get Connected: The Social Media Guide for Campus Leaders.
This guide shares the latest usage of young adults of social media and how campus leaders can genuinely connect with their campus community.
[button link=”https://www.josieahlquist.com//getconnectedguide/”]Request your free copy[/button]

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

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