The Accidental Leader: Why Today's Leader Needs to Take Responsibility for Their Influence

While yesterday's leaders actively and purposefully sought out power, today's leaders found themselves, often unexpectedly or accidentally, in a position of influence.

woman working with a laptop

Back in the day, people in leadership roles got to where they were on purpose. They climbed the corporate or political ladder, worked their way into a position of power, and stepped into the leadership role they had sought out from the beginning.

But today, that's not always the case. Many people find themselves thrust into a leadership role not because of a calculated plan or a structured path to get there, but because they've found themselves, either professionally or personally, with a large, engaged audience—an audience looking to them for insights, advice and guidance—or in some cases, their random opinions about pretty much anything.

This is a different kind of leadership; while yesterday's leaders actively and purposefully sought out power, today's leaders found themselves, often unexpectedly or accidentally, in a position of influence.

Social Media Gives Rise to Accidental Leaders—Both Individual and Professional

Social media has definitely played an instrumental role in this leadership change; all you need is a smartphone, a TikTok account and a good content strategy—and within months, you could find yourself with an audience of millions of devoted, engaged followers.

This new model of leadership is powered by authenticity—leaders being unafraid to be who they are, speak their mind and share that with the world.

It's no secret that social media is saturated with both individuals and brands trying to stand out. The problem is many seek advice online and all end up trying to implement the same strategies, which ironically makes them fade into the background even more. The more memorable influencers are those who bring their personality and beliefs to their content because this is harder to imitate in the long run. These influencers might repel some people who don't agree with them, but they have a much deeper relationship with those who do.

This trust is particularly strong for influencers with relatable personalities, where a survey showed between a 60%-70% approval rating depending on the category. This is higher than other types of influencers, including perceived experts. Whereas before people would be vetted based on their credentials before being shown on traditional media, anyone can grow through social media.

And while this shift toward authentic (and accidental) leadership may have been driven by social media, it's quickly spread to the business world.

It's become common for employees to share their frustrations publicly on social media, especially when it impacts people lower down the pecking order. These people may not have had a voice in the past but can now hold their powerful employers accountable. LinkedIn in particular allows people to share their stories in a manner that can gain sudden traction.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

But, to quote Spiderman's Uncle Ben, "with great power comes great responsibility." These "accidental" leaders may not have planned, expected or even wanted to end up in a position of influence. But they did, and with so many people looking to them as a leader, it's their responsibility to take that position of influence seriously—whether that influence is over a team, a company, a country or a group of Instagram followers.

Ultimately, it's up to each accidental leader to decide how they want to wield their influence. But being in an influential position offers the leaders of today the opportunity to use that position to drive real social change.

This can manifest in a variety of ways. For example, a CEO might leverage their position of power and influence to create a more people-centric culture within their organization—while a social media influencer might use their platform to bring attention to social issues, whether that's racial equality or animal rights.

Take Chiara Ferragni who uses her platform of 27 million followers on Instagram to champion issues such as ending domestic abuse and encouraging female startups. She shared, "I want to fight to help give women an entirely different role in society and show this in my own life, as an entrepreneur, as a CEO and at the same time as a mother and a wife. We should not settle; we can do anything."

But while accidental leaders have a unique opportunity to use their power and influence to do good, that same power and influence, when used incorrectly, can cause serious harm—something today's leaders, whether they're drafting an email to their company or gearing up to post on social media, need to be aware of and responsible for.

Traditionally, people with influence were groomed for those positions and given extensive media training. Few people would be able to reach an audience anywhere near the size of what a viral tweet can do today, and those who did were taught the consequences of their actions. The safety barriers are off now and with a few taps of their keyboard, accidental leaders can cause knock-on effects far beyond anything they might have imagined.

For example, if a leader has significant influence on social media and they tweet a news story without fact-checking it first, their followers are likely to believe that story, even if it's later proven to be false. Or if a leader within a company talks poorly about another leader, they're going to influence the way their team looks at the other leader—and can cause a serious rift within the organization.

The point is, it doesn't matter if you became a leader on purpose or if you fell into the position accidentally. With power and influence comes responsibility—the responsibility to do good and avoid causing harm.

Accidental Leaders Need to Stay True to Themselves—And True to the People They Lead

Just because someone stumbles into a position of leadership, influence and/or power (as many of today's leaders have) doesn't mean they don't have to think about how to use that influence or power responsibly and authentically.

Accidental leaders should actively think about what message they are sending to their followers and whether they are proud of the effects they have. If they stay true to their vision, they are sure to continue to inspire others.

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
What's this?
Content labeled as the Expert Forum is produced and managed by Newsweek Expert Forum, a fee based, invitation only membership community. The opinions expressed in this content do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Newsweek or the Newsweek Expert Forum.