Social leadership: Cultural graffiti and sanctioned dissent

By Julian Stodd

We live in the Social Age, a time of constant change, a new ecosystem within which we must adapt and learn to thrive. The NHS is a massive structure, indeed many different interrelated structures: radically complex and creaking at the seams. But the overloaded system that we can observe, the formal system, which is owned and controlled by politicians and managers is only part of the story.

Suffusing through the whole edifice, held in a dynamic tension, is a ‘social’ system: a democratised network of local bonded-by-trust tribes, tacit wisdom, unheard stories and creative dissent. And the social structure houses many of the stories that we need to hear and holds much of the potential for the NHS to change.

You’ll learn:

• The dynamic tension that exists between ‘formal’ and ‘social’ systems and how we can use it
• The notion of social leadership and how we earn it
• The importance of storytelling and why listening may be a key skill

But first, let’s consider graffiti. Cultural graffiti.

Walk around any city and you will see graffiti: when I walk through Bristol, it’s worn as a civic badge of pride, in Singapore it’s hidden and polite and in New York, raucous and blunt. 

Graffiti is a voice that is claimed, not granted. It’s the last voice taken, when all others are silenced: fully democratised, anyone can pick up a spray can and tag their local wall. 

But graffiti is not equal: whilst it feels subversive, if you interview artists and gang members around how they ‘learn’ it and how they apply it, you will hear stories of induction, prototyping, emergent power structures, socially enforced consequence and leadership.

Graffiti is not limited to underpasses and the back door of McDonalds: there are forms of cultural graffiti within our organisations. Claimed voices, voices that may be anonymised and shared without fear of consequence, anarchic maybe, but often constructive even if rough around the edges. 

This cultural graffiti is written not in acrylic or spray, but in stories and tweets. It does not flow through formal channels but resides solely in the Social. It’s claimed and sometimes hidden, but comes with a badge of high authenticity: it’s often shared by practitioners.

The NHS has seen an emergent tribe of social media savvy cultural graffiti artists: consultants, nurses, patients, all highly connected, operating outside their ‘professional’ formal space, but nonetheless operating to comment on, or improve, the overall system.

In the Social Age, if we want to ‘fix’ the NHS, we will have to do so through the individual agency of the aggregated whole, because the challenges that the NHS faces, at 70, are not solely financial. They are challenges of interconnectivity and complexity. And they are problems that will most likely be solved from within. To solve it, we will need to involve these hidden voices. But how?

Social leadership

In the formal system, you are given formal authority, the type of authority that is backed by a voice saying ‘because I told you so’. Formal power is important, but not limitless. 

In the social spaces, in the spaces where the cultural graffiti is scrawled and shared, your formal power will not reach. To lead in social spaces, we need Social Leaders and I’ve spent the last few years exploring what they look like, where we find them and, perhaps most importantly, how we can become one ourselves.

If the foundation of formal leadership is hierarchy (the system by which organisations are ‘organised’), then what is the foundation of Social Leadership? 

The answer is ‘reputation’. 

Social Leadership is reputation-based authority: we earn our reputation over time, through our actions into our communities and based upon that reputation we are awarded Social Authority. So ‘formal’ leadership is authority grounded in hierarchy, but ‘social’ authority is authority granted to us by our communities. 

This type of power is contextual, consensual, awarded voluntarily, not demanded through position or rank.

Our formal leaders may carry great power but if they have not earned a reputation through their actions, with humility, into social spaces, then they may have no social authority whatsoever.

Our cultural graffiti artists, by contrast, are often practitioners acting with great authenticity and may be awarded high social authority, even though they have virtually no formal power at all.

In the context of the Social Age, all of this is significant because we have seen an overall rebalancing of power - the individual storyteller, acting with strong social authority and high authenticity, is able to hold the formal organisation to account. Social power is favoured, whilst formal power is diminished.

When the NHS started, the challenge was to create a vast formal structure, run with almost military precision.

Today, at 70, the NHS faces a new challenge: to discover, to recognise, to empower and enable its Social Leaders, because it’s these people, deeply embedded within their communities, carrying high Social Authority, who will bring the agency to deliver change. Change, without which the NHS may not last at all.

Story listening

So what is the role of formal leaders in all of this? What message should we carry forth in this age of democratised, socially moderated, amplified, authentic storytelling? How should they respond to the cultural graffiti?

They should listen.

Knowledge used to be power, but today knowledge itself has changed and power may sit not in owning it, but in creating the spaces for knowledge to grow and to be shared. 

Our formal leaders must become expert at creating and holding open spaces for collaboration. Not simple collaboration: complex collaboration. Collaboration outside any formal structure. And to do that they will need to change themselves.

Humility is the foundation of Social Leadership and our leaders need to act with it at heart. They must learn to listen to stories, not to respond, not to counter, not to own them, but to learn from them and to do so with a humility to change.

There is a specific type of story that our formal leaders must learn to engage with: stories of difference. 

It’s easy to build consensus, but that consensus usually takes place within a community of similarity. Similar roles, similar thinking. But the NHS is vast: to become interconnected, we need to build communities not simply of consensus, but of respectful difference and we need to hear the stories that will support them.

When I interview graffiti artists, they understand spaces: they know where a certain type of space exists, a special space, where graffiti is allowed. Certain shop owners, certain landlords, even certain councils, create spaces for dissent. 

In some ways, that is what our formal leaders must learn to do: to hold open spaces for people to come into, to learn to hear the stories that are shared and most importantly of all, to listen to those stories with humility and respect.

When they feel the need to respond, they simply need to offer their thanks and be grateful that the community has chosen to share its images, to paint its cultural graffiti in broad daylight, where we can all benefit from the story that it tells.


Julian Stodd is a writer and explorer of the Social Age. His last two books have explored aspects of Social Leadership and been adopted by organisations worldwide. These organisations share a belief that the organisation of the future, the Socially Dynamic organisation, will recognise democratised storytelling, have high levels of humble Social Leadership and, more than anything, be deeply fair to all.

Twitter: @julianstodd