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Leadership Forum: Social media followers don’t make a leader

October 30, 2019
By Matt Pegg

We live in an increasingly connected world where social media apps dominate the communication landscape.

Social media has and will continue to change the fire service culture. While I am active on social media, I am far from being someone who would be considered a Twitter influencer nor an Instagram personality. I use these platforms as tools to connect with our residents, members of our fire service team and with those who have an interest in our service. Without any doubt, social media can be a powerful tool when we need to connect with residents during major emergencies. During a major six-alarm fire in 2017, a single tweet that I sent during the course of the emergency reached more than 300,000 people in an astonishingly short amount of time. There is no doubt that social media is a powerful tool; the dominant reality of today and for the foreseeable future.

However, I find it ironic that social media users with high follower counts are referred to as influencers. In what is now being described by Success, Forbes and Entrepreneur as the YouEconomy, people are ranked on the basis of the number of followers they have on any given social media platform. A recent issue of Success magazine included their engagement based Platinum Influence List (success.com/platinum-influence-list/). The list is divided into personal development, entrepreneurship and business, entertainment and culture, spirituality and mindset, money and health.

There are names on this list who have absolutely made a positive impact as authors, teachers and thought leaders in my personal and professional development. I am a fan of social media, and I believe that it is a tool that every fire chief should be using as part of their communications tool inventory. However, there is a problem emerging for leaders. Leadership isn’t about you and there is no YouEconomy for leaders. Leadership is about those we serve.

In a world increasingly focused on amassing followers, we need leaders who are actually committed to developing new leaders.

Regardless of the leadership position you hold today, or aspire to hold in the future, leadership is about influencing and enabling the people around you to become better and to achieve more than they do today.

While I enjoy and embrace social media in my role as a fire chief, there is no forum more valuable, impactful or powerful than being face to face with the members of my team. I could tweet all day, every day and not influence or assist one member of our team in the way that a single, two-minute face to face conversation can. It is those exchanges that yield the best results and are the most enjoyable and satisfying for both.

Sharing thought provoking quotes and advice with others via social media can be valuable and worthwhile. However, tweeting, retweeting, sharing and liking posts about leadership does not make someone a leader.

Leadership is hard work today and always has been. It requires courage, competence, honesty, commitment, self-awareness and the dedication of often extraordinary amounts of personal time. Leadership, by its very definition, is not about you. True leadership happens when we are focused on the development, success and abilities of other people.

Our effectiveness and success as leaders will never be quantified, measured, judged or determined by the number of social media followers that we have achieved. Likewise, our leadership performance and competency will never be influenced by the number of likes, shares and retweets that we achieve.

Donning a gold stripe-adorned tunic doesn’t make someone a leader any more than wearing high-end running shoes makes someone a marathon runner. As leaders, we will be judged on our visibly demonstrated competence, on the basis of the difference we made in people’s lives, on the extent to which we leave the organization better than we found it and on the basis of how many leaders we helped to develop and support.

Perhaps we should all take the next 10 minutes to close our social media apps. Let’s think about the names of people, this week, that we can honestly say that we have helped to grow and achieve their own leadership results through influence.

That is the list worth pursuing and adding to as leaders. Our follower counts can wait.


Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at matthew.pegg@toronto.ca and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.