Is a social media presence a substitute for leadership?


By Dr Stephen Whitehead (views are author’s own)

Are you one of those school leaders who feels compelled to let the world know every time your students produce some quality work, your teachers deliver a good lesson, or someone gives you positive feedback?

If so, read on.

I am reliably informed that the ‘perceived wisdom’ from social media ‘experts’ is that more is better when it comes to promoting oneself on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin or any one of the myriad platforms that have sprouted up like a multi-headed Hydra over the past decade or more.

I am also reliably informed that people’s attention span dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds by 2013.

What the average attention span is today is anyone’s guess, though neither you nor I believe it is increasing. Not for nothing do EDDi’s editors splice paragraphs into very short chunks.

Like this one.

Or, this one.

It helps to capture those micro-bursts of attention you are giving this article.

The reason why our attention span is dropping is because there is an awful lot of noise out there. Our world is full of virtual assaults on our brain, incessant attacks on our common sense, trust, identity, equilibrium, even sense of reality.

We are not merely overloaded by information we are drowning in it. The only sane way to respond, indeed the only way to stay sane, is to switch off.

Increasing noise resulting in decreasing attention span, a totally ridiculous but intensifying cycle of madness so embedded in modern society there appears no escaping it.

And one group contributing to this bedlam are leaders.

The global standard bearer for leadership by social media is (or was), of course, Donald Trump. During his first 12 months as President (January 2017-January 2018) he sent out over 2,500 tweets. This Twitter torrent increased to the point that by mid-2020, he was averaging one tweet every 6.5 minutes – 200 a day!

With over 45,000 tweets behind him, Trump exemplified the notion that social media presence is a worthy substitute for actual leadership.

Well, at least until he got banned.

Of course, Trump was never interested in leadership so much as self-promotion. His first tweet was sent in May 2009. He was self-promoting his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. By May 2018, he’d posted 37,600 times. Much of the time while playing golf.

You may be impressed or appalled (or both) by knowing these Trump Twitter facts, but are you surprised?

I suspect not.

Because it is quite likely you have slipped into doing something very similar yourself.

Over the past couple of years I have noticed an interesting trend on Linkedin* which is for school leaders to post ever more frequently about what is happening in their school.

So, for example, you might open up Linkedin one morning and find that educationalists (friends, acquaintances and strangers) have posted photos/vidoes of their students studying, teachers teaching, or graduates graduating, along with fulsome praise for such endeavours.

All very nice and innocent, but also entirely predictable.

In which case, why bother? What is motiving these erstwhile professionals to spend precious time (well, as school leaders their time should be precious) sending the world formulaic posts of mundane school activity?

Which raises the question as to how I’m expected to respond to all this niceness? By clicking ‘like’, presumably.

So much niceness around nowadays it makes me wonder why the world seems to be going to pot.

And then there is the individual entrepreneur; the woman or man who uses social media as a direct means of promoting themselves, their work, their ‘offer’. And, yes, there are times when I am one of those.

I can entirely see the rationale in maintaining a social media presence of some description if your ability to financially survive relies on you ensuring your photo is always up there with your competitors. But I do wonder if this can become counter-productive.

How many smiley faces can I handle in a week?

And do I really need to be informed every time a person actually does their job?

Certainly, I am not convinced of a straightforward connection between one’s social media presence and one’s burgeoning bank account. I know several successful business people who’ve never had a Facebook account nor indeed any social media presence. And nor are they to be found on Linkedin. Yet somehow (perhaps by magic?) their businesses turn over many millions of dollars a year.

Such privacy is not only becoming rarer, it is correspondingly becoming more valuable.

All of which returns us to the fundamental question as to why do we bother? What are we hoping to achieve by all this self-publicity? Because you and I both know that once one steps on this treadmill of self-actualisation via social media profiling then there is no way to step off it. Not without serious damage to one’s image if not ego.


The volumes of research and writings on leadership would fill several libraries – actually on reflection they probably do. But it is rare that one comes across writing which exposes the fundamental characteristic of leadership which is that it is all about maintaining the illusion of power, potency, success. Once the ‘powerful, knowledgeable leader’ bubble is burst then it is all over, from there on it is merely a matter of time before he/she is replaced.

Any loss of certainty (ergo credibility) is potentially fatal to a leader, which gives us a clue as to why leaders like Trump devote so much of their time to pumping up the illusion of success and potency via social media.

If management cannot speak with certainty, how does it speak? Is certainty not the very essence of leadership? To believe in oneself and, from that, to be able to articulate and publicly communicate an appropriate and convincing organisational vision, is this not the very stuff of the ‘modern manager’?’’

I wrote that in 1998, when Mark Zuckerberg was just 15 and Twitter was an adjective used to describe a bird’s warble.

Leaders have an avid need if not compulsion to display assuredness and authority. Yet all that certainty can quickly disappear if one takes one’s foot of the pedal, or slows down the treadmill.

‘Leaders who wish to continue being in some position of power, authority and control over their work situation must display and act out, indeed believe in, their innate ability to survive if not prosper - for leadership and managerial discourse requires nothing less of its articulators…yet lurking beyond the given assumptions of control, certainty and fixedness is an ever-present insecurity. Moreover, I would suggest that these moments of disruption to leadership identity and discourse are increasingly likely.’

Over the past decades becoming and being a leader has developed a ubiquity which is staggering. For whatever reason, be it the pressures of neo-liberal globalisation or the intensification and temporality of post-industrialised work, we are all now required to be entrepreneurial, motivated, visionary, self-actualising leaders. We live or die by our image, and our image is what primarily informs our professional reputation.

Little wonder, then, that school leaders are increasingly busying themselves posting positive images of their everyday work activities on social media.

They have no choice.

This conveyor belt of social media self-promotion cannot be slowed down and certainly never turned off once started.

You are not in control of it, it is in control of you.

This is where the vulnerability of leadership meets the tyranny of social media.

Of course, you may be a school leader reading this who thinks to his or herself, “I am not being controlled by social media, I am in control.”

If so I have one simple challenge for you to test the veracity of your self-belief:

Erase your social media presence and stop posting.

No, you cannot do it. You dare not do it. The risks to your professional role and position are too great.

And nor can I.

We are all trapped by the same need – to keep pumping up our self-image on social media. And no group is more vulnerable to this need than leaders, especially leaders of private and international schools. Well, maybe educational consultants and private counsellors are even more vulnerable. After all, no one is paying their wages at the end of month, only themselves.


Some weeks ago, I was complaining to my wife about having to deal with a techy problem regards a website set-up. It was giving me a headache – literally. I am a writer, an academic, I get turned on by exploring existential anxiety and identity, not by PSD files and SSL certificates.

My wife, having little or no sympathy for my plight, simply turned to me and said “well at least you are needed. There will come the day when no one will need you for work.”

Brutal but true.

Now aged 71, I’m fortunate that day has not already arrived. But it will. And so it will for you.

One day you won’t be able to post on social media because you’ll have nothing to post about. Well, nothing to do with your professional activities. Your days of leadership – and power, authority, control – will be over.

You will have joined the massed tanks of The Forgotten.

The Forgotten are all around us, but they are invisible. They are the old man walking in the park, alone but for his dog. The old woman pushing her sparsely filled shopping basket around Tesco. The old couple watching TV in their sitting room, waiting for the telephone call that rarely comes from their adult son or daughter.

Think about how many bosses you’ve already had in your work life, your various professional roles. Where are they now?

How many of them never disappeared but continued to be high profile, high-fliers, pushing back the boundaries of leadership knowledge and practice well into their dotage?

Not many, I warrant.

They’ve mostly gone never to return and the moment they walked out that office door, carrying their cardboard box of minor trophies and memorabilia of a fast dissipating professional identity, they became forgotten.

And that is the real fear driving our insatiable need to post mundane, boring, predictable and sometimes embarrassing ‘news’ on social media – the fear of that looming disappearance awaiting us all.

* I don’t have a twitter account; have never used Instagram; send an average of one whatsapp message a day (to one of just three people); and only use Facebook for promoting these EDDi articles. Nevertheless, I do like my Linkedin.


Whitehead, S. M. (1999) ‘Contingent Masculinities: Disruptions to ‘Man’agerialist Identity’ in S. Roseneil and J. Seymour (Eds) Practicing Identities: Power and Resistance. London: Palgrave.


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