The Social Proof Leadership Lie

Have you ever logged onto someone’s Twitter feed or onto a Facebook page and been immediately impressed by the number of followers and likes they seem to have? Or have you left a website with the impression that they know what they are talking about because of all the “As Seen On” media entity logos appearing there, or the endless number of blue-chip company logos they have listed as their clients?

If yes, then you are a recipient of a deliberate process used by marketers known as informational social influence or social proof.

Social proof is such a common part of our lives that we barely know we are being affected by it. Just the other day I saw an interesting quote on Twitter and before I could even think about what I was doing, I had clicked on the person’s profile that had tweeted the quote and was assessing whether or not I should follow them based entirely upon their existing followership.

Mark Schaefer, an author and recognised authority on the subject explains what happened to me, and many of us, this way:

“Social proof is a critical concept behind influence in both the offline and the online worlds. In the absence of enough information to make our own decision, we turn to signals from others to help us find a way forward.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say you are at the site of a terrible car wreck and two people are shouting orders. One is wearing a doctor’s lab coat and one is wearing a pizza delivery uniform.  Whose directions are you likely to follow?

A social proof “badge” can bestow authority whether it is deserved or not.  Somebody who wears a doctor’s lab coat, has an office decorated with diplomas, or drives an exotic car is communicating “power” — even if they are a fake.  It’s a type of herd mentality, and it can be both dangerous and useful, depending on the situation.”

Social proof is not a new concept and has been spoken about since as early as the turn of the 19th century. But what has brought it to the fore once more is the ease with which social proof, whether legitimate or not, can be established via social media.

Schaefer continues: “Offline, we may have the chance to meet people, or ask a mutual friend to help us determine credibility.  But this type of validation is often not possible online, so we seek a shortcut, and on the social web, there are plenty of them!

We are all suffering from information overload in this data-dense online world. We simply don’t have the energy to do any more digging and will gladly accept a “badge” as proof of authority.

When establishing online influence, social proof matters … even more than real achievement.  I’m sure more people know how many Twitter followers I have than any aspect of my career, education, or charitable work.”

One of the main reasons for the introduction of social proof into any marketing strategy is to establish brand presence and brand authority within a particular market or niche. Describing it differently, the company is attempting to establish them self as a type of leader in their chosen area, to be looked to when a need or want arises.

Now this article is not a tutorial on social proof, rather it is a leadership article wherein I want us to focus on the flaws of the “get rich quick” approach that many ‘leaders’ are trying to go after, that we also see occurring online: Buying likes and purchasing followers.

The Trust Deficit

Did you catch the problem that Schaefer shares? “When establishing online influence, social proof matters … even more than real achievement.”  Or in other words, it is very easy to fake it.

And there is a good business case for faking it too: the quicker you can establish a market for your product or a list of followers, the quicker you will potentially influence more to follow you.

But there is also a massive downside: What is the true source of all influence?  Looking at social proof, we must ask what mechanisms it uses so that we, the recipients, allow it to affect us.  Social proof is not a brilliant, unavoidable form of subliminal advertising.  Rather, it uses an approach that lowers our defences and takes advantage of our wants.  And at the very core of it all is trust.

What would happen if people learned you had bought your social media followers?

What would happen if people called you out on a blog post you did not write?

What would happen to you and your brand if the award you received a couple of months ago turned out to be fake?

Trust is at the centre of all leadership and all people engagement. If you feel tempted to chase a hollow prize, please remember the words of Mark Cutifani, CEO AngloAmerican: “Leadership is all about people.”

Driving Incorrect Behaviour

Manufactured social proof also drives the incorrect behaviour from those you want to have as followers. Instead of engaging your brand or content in a meaningful way, becoming true brand advocates or ambassadors as they do so, they only skim the surface of what you offer and it will only be a matter of time before they are distracted by someone who has a couple of more “badges” and a few more likes.

Conversion is key.

Undermining Confidence

What expectations would you be burdened with if you had to defend notoriety or thought leader status that have come as a result of falsified claims? We need look no further than a Lance Armstrong or Pallo Jordan to witness the rise and fall of confidence built on sandy foundations.

Two confidences are impacted by faking it – your confidence to deliver on the hope of others; and the confidence of your followers in your ability to deliver once you have been caught out.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­When all is said and done if you spend your time concerned about whether you are socially acceptable, whether or not you tick the social proof boxes, you waste opportunities, resources, and time that could have been used to establish yourself as a true winner in a market.

Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and others didn’t waste their time worried about what others were thinking of them. They were focused on goals that were too big and too “impossible” to ignore, and this has resulted in names and legacies that will last forever.  Let us do the same.





Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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