Should Your Community Manager be a Leader?

Photo cred: Steve Jurvetson

Does a Community Manager need to be a leader?

I asked this question and god a lot of different views after a really insightful conversation with Teresa Basich on twitter.  I think that leadership CAN play a role in community management in a number of ways, but it is not a pre-requisite.

When talking about something as broad and undefined as “Community Management”, you’re going to get a lot of varied angles.

The Community Manager can be a leader in the space.

When I think about this, I think about people like DJ Waldow, the Community Manager for Blue Sky Factory.  People view DJ as a leader in the email marketing space and so his participation in the “email marketing community” will drive potential customers to their service.

I think about people like Andrew Hyde who until recently was the Community Director for TechStars.  Andrew has become a leader in the startup space, starting projects like Startup Weekend (which is so awesome), and so by participating in the start-up space, he drives more recognition and credibility to TechStars.

This obviously isn’t all they do, but I see it as a big part.

If your Community Manager is a recognized leader in the space, their influence can really help your brand.  Imagine if Seth Godin emailed you, personally asking you to write about his project on your blog.  Chances are, you’ll give that email some real consideration.

The Community Manager can be a leader for the brand’s community.

When I think about this role, I think about Ryan Paugh, the Director of Community for Brazen Careerist.  Ryan is extremely active within the Brazen community.  He drives conversations, acknowledges loyal users and is constantly interacting.  He is the leader of the Brazen community in my eyes.

I think about Erin Bury, the Community Manager for Sprouter.  Erin hosts events for entrepreneurs, interacts and drives the community within Sprouter.  She too is a leader for her brand’s community.

This gives the community a central person to turn to with their feedback, and questions.  It gives a face to the brand.

The Community Manager should be a leader within the company.

See Andreana Drencheva’s post that reminded me of this one.

This is an important one. I think that whoever is driving your company’s community efforts should be a leader within your company.

They should be someone who has the authority to make decisions and influence other decision makers.

They should be someone who can take the needs of the community and implement them quickly.

They should be a leader in the company because when they interact, it makes the customer and community feel more entitled.  It lets the community know that you care about them.  If your intern is talking to me on twitter, I feel a lot less connected to your brand than if I’m talking to the CEO.

With that said…

I don’t think that the community manager absolutely has to be a leader.  Or at least, there are different ways to look at it.  I think one great method is the “Lead from behind” method (Thanks Alexa).  It’s about understanding what drives a community and providing the resources for it do grow.  It’s about identifying the natural leaders in your community and letting them lead.

A Community Manager might have more “behind the scenes” responsibilities, depending on their goals.  If they’re more strategy focused, they may just need to be savvy in putting the pieces in place.  They may have more of a marketing focus, working more on campaigns.

What’s your take?  Does a Community Manager need to be a leader?

35 thoughts on “Should Your Community Manager be a Leader?

  1. It strikes me that all of this is highly appropriate in a business-to-business type of setting. What about in a non-business-to-business type of setting? For instance, I work at a non-profit. How might the role of a community manager differ in the non-profit sector? I think it really depends on the context.

    1. Good question. While the examples of Community Managers that I used are mostly b2b, I think that the points of leadership are the same for non-profit, or b2c.

      For example, I volunteer a few hours a week to help a charity called the Childrens Sport Connection. If I were to hire a community manager for the non-profit, I might take into account how influential they are in the sports space. Perhaps they’re an athlete, or a sports writer. Being a leader amongst the people that we’re trying to reach would be an important factor to consider.

      For the other 2 points: Being a leader to the brand’s community and being a leader within the company, I think it’s pretty clear how that can work for non-profits as well.

      1. Cloverdew & Spinks,
        As a nonprofit / association staff member the whole time I was reading this I thought about it’s application to our sector as the same as posted. We may not have a dedicated social network platform, but use blogs-FB pages-Twitter-etc. That’s where we become the Community Manager. In other ways, the nonprofit itself could be all of the above at the same time.

        Leader in the space > The thought leader in your field could help deploy tremendous education and engagement for your org.

        Leader in brand’s community > Like Ryan Paugh, you can guide discussions to get groups talking. Right now a good example is @sigmanuhq – debunking hazing myths with #40Answers. (disclosure – they are a member of my trade association)

        Leader in the > Think of the excitement and engagement you can build with constituents if they know they are making suggestions for your cause to the people that can direct those efforts! That’s impactful. — I see more volunteers, more donations, more transparency etc as a result.

        Don’t you think they can be the thought leader/provoker, spark conversations, and carry the face of the leader? I do. Empower community – it’s what nonprofits/associations do.

  2. I think it depends on the role in the organization. I know many community managers are natural leaders and as such that’s how they came to be a community manager in the first place (it is quite a new field!)

    However, as the position evolves, different types will emerge. There are community managers who are more customer service focused (presumably modeled around Frank Eliason, formely of Comcast), for example. These people need not be a leader necessarily.

    Also I think if the CM position is public facing, then people will perceive that person as a leader regardless of whether they were a leader in the first place. Case in point–Erin Bury wrote in a blog post how she didn’t even have a blog or Twitter presence before her role at Sprouter.. (Not to say she didn’t have leadership traits before, but certainly not in the same way she does now)


    1. All solid points Kelly. I agree, the “Community Manager” position is still very broad and can infer a number of different roles and goals.

      Here’s something to think about. The community manager position can be a blend of many things. For someone who is focusing on customer service, are they really a community manager? Or is it actually a new evolution of the traditional customer service rep? They’re doing the same thing, just on a new platform.

      Why do you think that just because a community manager position is public facing, that they’ll be perceived as a leader?

  3. David, I think you’re getting “leader” confused with “expert”. The people that are viewed as leaders are the ones that are experts at what they do. People that don’t “sell” as much as they “consult”. These people don’t look to be called leaders, they care more about getting their jobs done in a way that leaves the customer extremely satisfied. That’s a leader in my book…the rest is just conversation. Hug.

    1. I don’t think I have it confused. Many times, a leader is an expert and an expert is a leader. They’re not the same though and I’m speaking about leaders in this case. A leader being, someone that a group of people look to and are influenced by.

      A leader, much like an expert, is entirely about how they’re perceived. If people view you as a leader, then you are a leader. Same for experts.

      Whether a person looks to be called a leader or not isn’t really relevant. It’s whether or not they actually are perceived as a leader.

      “they care more about getting their jobs done in a way that leaves the customer extremely satisfied”

      Then, does having a “leadership” role, increase a community manager’s accomplish this, as well as their other goals?

  4. David, didn’t quite understand your last question (or how it was written) but I do agree 100% with: “If people view you as a leader, then you are a leader” and this: “Whether a person looks to be called a leader or not isn’t really relevant”.

    So what’s your point?

    1. Oops. What I meant to ask was:

      “Then, does having a “leadership” role, increase a community manager’s ability to make customers happy, and accomplish their other goals?”

      My point was that leadership does play a role in the community manager position. I think expertise does as well, but that wasn’t the focus of the post and I wasn’t confusing the two.

      Hope that made sense.

  5. Really interesting stuff and great examples. I think that community managers should lead by example in that you need to certainly drink your own KoolAid (use your own website or apps) but I also think that you need to do what is best for your company as a whole for the long term. What is scalable? For example, I think that I went into my community manager role at my startup thinking I was going to be me as the leader or host of the Twitter app party and that my job was going to be much more functioning as the public face of the brand. However, seeing that in addition to the community manager role I’m also doing copywriting, PR, customer service and all sorts of marketing stuff…it makes more sense for me to lead from behind and let the community members stand in the spotlight. Here’s the thing: I’m only one person. I can’t carry the community on my back and retweet every review, hold every hand, answer every question. That isn’t going to really build this community. I think my real job as community manager isn’t to be Janet of oneforty…it’s to be the strategist that takes this thing from 1.0 to 2.0 and gets people retweeting each other’s reviews, answering each other’s questions. Now…how to do that? 😉

    1. I can totally relate to your role and challenges. I mean, I started off as a community manager and as I got more and more involved with the company, my role expanded. Now I’m managing a lot more than just community.

      I think though, that any great leader knows that they can’t do all the work themselves. They need to lead by example and inspire actions in their community. So I do think that you can be a leader, and you can be Janet OneForty. It’s all about what you think is the best approach.

  6. “Then, does having a “leadership” role, increase a community manager’s ability to make customers happy, and accomplish their other goals?” No. The customer doesn’t care whether you’re a leader or not – just that you solved their problem.

    Maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one but in my book, a person that does their job with excellence, develops an impeccable reputation in the community, earns the trust of their superiors and clients is gonna be perceived as a leader whether they want to be or not.

    Your post is based on people you “perceive” to be leaders, what you see isn’t as important as what the client sees (or what their superiors see). Social media has brought about all these silly labels: “thought leaders”, “change agents”, “influencers”. Yawn. It’s all perception…yes? Same with leadership.

    1. But it’s the same perception amongst your customers.

      I’m definitely not challenging the value of providing an amazing customer experience. I think this is a huge aspect of building a successful business today, but I don’t think it’s the only thing.

      On top of providing a good customer experience, you need to grow the business. You need to bring in more customers.

      For many of the examples I used, I am the client. Ryan has been great at getting me involved in the brazen community and making me feel privileged. He is a major reason for my participation in their community, and my support for their community.

      Again, in this post I discussed several points of leadership that you MIGHT want to look for in a community manager. You might look for just one point. You might look for all or none.

      1. So you don’t think providing a good customer experience brings in more customers? One has to be a “leader” to grow their business? You need to stop reading blog posts by these so-called “thought leaders” and sit down with someone who’s running a real business, not a social media/marketing/consulting operation but someone who’s out there selling office equipment, selling sanitation services, selling lava lamps, selling video production services…and ask them what’s really important in growing their business 🙂


      2. Of course it does.

        No, as I said, one doesn’t HAVE to be a leader to grow their business. It can certainly help though.

        I have sat down with people who run real businesses. While participating in the DreamIT program I had the opportunity to listen to, and meet, some of the most knowledgeable entrepreneurs. So while I am not the most experienced, I have learned of the ups and downs, successful strategies and failing strategies.

        Consider startups who don’t have an established customer base. Providing great customer service doesn’t do much when you don’t have customers and no one knows who you are.

        1. This could probably go on all night, which I would probably enjoy but my wife would eventually tell me to stay off the dang computer already. Let’s just agree that we have two different takes on “leadership” as it relates to growing a business (or being a community manager, sales manager, or any other manager) with mine being based on over 10 years of corporate sales experience, being on the Board of Directors of several non-profit organizations, on various committees for local Chambers of Commerce, starting my own business despite a wife, kid & mortgage and seeing said business grow each of the last three years, and yours is based on…what is your experience based on again?

          I told you I could have fun with this…still pals?

        2. Of course still pals. I love a good, respectful debate.

          What I didn’t want to start was a pissing contest. I just wanted to make the point that I wasn’t speaking simply based on reading “so-called thought leaders” and that my thoughts are based in actual business thinking. Of course, I respect your experience.

          But after sharing your experience, you didn’t explain what that taught you in relevance to the discussion. Based on your experience, why do you believe that leadership doesn’t matter in a community manager role? Are you saying that a business simply needs great customer service to grow and succeed?

          To comment on a couple of your points:

          I think your point on the customer not caring if you’re a leader, was focused on one-on-one customer service interaction. This is rarely the only role of the community manager.

          Everything in business is about perception. No, not just leadership. Yes, even customer service.

          “A person that does their job with excellence, develops an impeccable reputation in the community, earns the trust of their superiors and clients is gonna be perceived as a leader whether they want to be or not.”

          Absolutely agreed. My point isn’t that the community manager should completely focus on becoming a leader. They should however, realize how their performance might impact the perception of their leadership, and how that might impact the business.

          1. Haven’t I given you enough comments already? All this and when I tried to DM you earlier today, I realized you’re not even following me. Now, if Mr. Waldow can follow… 😉

  7. Pretty good discussion David. I think, if you don’t mind me saying, that it all comes down to the ‘chicken-egg’ analogy in that a leader is a product of a good manager. If you have a good manager, then odds are that human resource is a good leader. If not, then why have him or her as a manager?

    Should a community manager be a leader? Yes. That’s how we know we made the right decision of having him/her as a manager.

    Great post (and terrific links!) Best, ~Pauly

    1. The chicken-egg analogy is true in that you can look for a community manager who is already considered a leader, or you can hire someone in whom you see leadership potential.

  8. I don’t think that a Community Manager needs to be a leader in the way that you’re talking about (an authority), but it doesn’t hurt. More than anything what I think a Community Manager needs is to know what motivates the people in his/her community.

    I honestly believe that I learned my core Community Manager skills through planning parties in college and in high school. Seriously. If you can figure out how to motivate a critical-mass group to come to your event, then you’re an awesome Community Manager, whether you’re rallying people together online or offline.

    It doesn’t take an authority to throw a good party. It takes a person who knows how to show people a good time. At least that’s how I’ve always tried to look at it.

    Thanks David for including me in your post! Means a lot to me. For real.

  9. That’s an awesome way to look at it. You’re right. If you can show people a good time, chances are you’ll be a great community manager. It’s about making sure your community is enjoying their experience with your site.

    Always happy to share good people doing good things.

  10. Thanks for the shout out, David. I read through most of the Dan/David exchange in the comments and I kinda agree that a leader is not necessarily an “expert” <–quotes intentional. I don't believe they are necessarily one in the same. In this case, I may be a "thought leader" <–again, quotes intentional – but in reality, I'm just a dude who has been thinking, talking, & breathing email marketing for 5+ years. So, I kinda know it better than many. Does that make me a leader? Not necessarily. Does it make me a better Community Manager? Hell yeah.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

    1. DJ, you wanna piece of me too? 🙂
      I think, unintentionally perhaps, we might actually agree in what really matters, yes? You know your stuff better than many which makes you an “expert” of sorts. So, if I understand your comment, being extremely knowledgeable at your job is more important than whether or not you’re considered a “leader” because it makes you better at your job, which in turn makes your customers & superiors happy which should directly affect how much you get paid (which, despite what anyone else tells you, is what really matters). Am I on point here?

  11. Yikes. I knew there was a risk jumping into this comment stream!

    Dan – I do agree with you on the leader/expert thing for sure. To be clear, I’m not sure I wrote or meant that being extremely knowledgeable is MORE IMPORTANT that being considered a “leader.” Both are important. If you can be a leader AND extremely knowledgeable in your field … double win.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

    1. I think in professional spaces (so mostly b2b), if you’re a publicly recognized expert, you’re also perceived as a leader.

      I think both are really helpful for a community manager.

  12. Honestly, after reading these comment threads, I’m not really sure I want to get involved. But, since this post was spurred from a conversation between you and me, I guess it’s my duty, right? 😉

    After giving this quite a bit more thought, I’m apt to agree with Paul that we’re stuck in a bit of a chicken-egg, catch 22 situation here. Although I don’t believe community managers *have* to be leaders, per se, I think the leader tag kind of gets tacked on to us as we move through our roles, and some of that happens — and maybe here’s the sticking point — because of the things we’re tasked to do.

    Then again, in a situation like ours at Radian6, where we’ve got multiple folks on the Community Team handling all sorts of niche-y projects, that leader tag is a bit more nuanced and almost dichotomous. On the one hand, we all take the lead for certain niche-focused initiatives both inside and outside the company walls, and are then identified as leaders in those instances. On the other hand, we all collectively contribute in more passive, supportive ways to our community and our team, as well.

    Maybe I shouldn’t say this but I don’t see myself as a leader, and to be totally honest, even when we’re out and about at events, I’m not necessarily identified as one, either. There’s benefit to this, though — I can observe and chat without having expectations placed on me, and I can take all that I hear and learn, that perspective I get from not being part of the “mainstream” social media leadership crowd, and incorporate it into my work both behind the scenes and on stage.

    Final verdict? Whether a community manager needs to be a leader or not depends on a variety of factors, including the organization’s (profit or NP) community initiatives and team make-up. 😀 If I had to give a definitive yes or no answer…I’d still say that no, a community manager doesn’t *have* to be a leader.

    Let the comment slinging continue. 😉



    Teresa Basich
    Community Manager, Radian6

    1. We’re just having fun (= Nothing to fear here (=

      As I mentioned to you before, when writing this point I thought about Radian6 and how you guys have a pretty unique situation. You have a number of different community managers, all with different goals, who focus on different niches.

      I see different levels of leadership within your team, at least when viewed externally. For example, Amber has been called a leader more times than I even know. In my eyes, she’s a leader as well. Do I think that her role as a leader in the social media space helps Radian6? Absolutely.

      Still, you guys have a full team of amazing people. Everyone one of your community managers are hard-working and are all leaders in one way or another.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for getting this conversation started with me.

      1. Thanks for such kind words about our team, David. It’s true, we have a unique situation, but I hope to see our type of set-up gain traction as companies expand and jive with the idea that community management is much more than interacting with your online constituency.

        Always happy to chat, and thank YOU for getting my mental gears churning around this. Still thinking I’ll be writing a complementary post on the topic pretty soon.


        1. It’s all true.

          Actually, I think we will have to chat soon. I’m looking to implement a system similar to yours for Scribnia and our other projects that we’re launching.

          So I’ll hold you to that 😉

  13. I love your breakdown of different styles of leadership, David. Good stuff as always — and some great insights in the comments, too.

    There’s a scene in “Band of Brothers” that comes to mind here. Major Winters, who has led Easy Company since D-Day, has been promoted to battalion command. When Easy gets pinned down by the inept leadership of its new CO, Winters’s instinct is to rush into the field of battle to lead the men forward. Only a stern reminder from his commander reminds him that he must now “lead from behind.” He sends his best lieutenant into the field to relieve the inept CO of duty and lead the Company to its objective.

    Leadership doesn’t always mean being the front of the column. It means moving people to the objective. HOW you do that is what strategy is all about.

  14. Hi David –

    Really interesting to me that there’s a lot of discussion here about leadership as an attribute in business, not just as it relates to community management.

    What makes this position and those like it so unique is that you’re smack dab in the middle of discussion and visibility. There are two things at work here: your innate ability to cultivate relationships and foster dialogue and discussion, which is part of the fabric of someone that does well in this role. The second is whether your activity over time and ability to do your job well can *establish* you as a leader, or an authority, or someone that engenders respect (let’s face it, I know those that “lead” that I don’t respect one iota, so I’d call those different).

    They’re both important, in the long run. But there’s a difference between what you come to the table with, and what you build through your work. And while I don’t know that I’d say initial leadership is a prerequisite for community management – I know some fabulous ones that have started by being guided by others – I’d say that through strong community cultivation, the very best will emerge with some leadership skills firmly in tact.

    Cheers and thanks for the shout –

    Amber Naslund,

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