Leadership in the Online Environment

Leadership in the Online Environment
by Elaine Hall



“The timeless challenge of leadership is to bring together a group of diverse individuals and create an environment where they will work together effectively toward common, shared goals” (Quigley, 2013, p. 28). The mission of our student organizations here at SJSU’s School of Library and Information Science is to focus on strategies and programs that target the greater good of our fellow students. The leaders of these associations are both passionate and committed to expanding educational, social, and professional opportunities for our students. In this article, I explore the unique opportunities and challenges of online leadership and provide effective strategies for leading in the online environment.

Opportunities and Challenges

Online leadership can create unique dynamics for virtual teams that go beyond organizing a task-oriented group. Phelps (2012) indicated that “virtual environments create a significant level of connectivity and a sense of presence” (p. 67) that connects each individual to each other as well as to the group’s goals. SJSU’s ASIS&T Student Chapter Chair, Suzanne Rogers Gruber (2014), indicated that the greatest opportunity in online leadership is the opportunity “to develop and expand connections with the larger community. This started with just being able to recognize a few names and faces in my classes, but has grown to include my social media networks and contacts with the professional and academic communities in my field.”

Another rewarding aspect of online leadership is that the online environment facilitates a diverse and collaborative leadership experience. Young (2007) indicated that “the real power of diversity is the skill of identifying what is unique about each member of the team, and applying specific developmental and motivational strategies that amplify each individual’s performance” (p. 98). When individuals from all over the world come together virtually for a common cause, it creates an opportunity to increase awareness and sensitivity to diverse viewpoints and experiences (Phelps, 2012, p. 67).This in turn benefits the community they serve by offering programming and services targeted for a more diverse audience.

Online leadership also has its challenges. In the online environment, various factors come into play that can impact the group dynamic. Amongst the SLIS student organizations, time management is a primary challenge in online leadership.  SLISConnect’s Past President, Sarah Scott (2014), stated that it “can take longer and be more difficult to really get to know the people you are working with, which can lead to delays in completing work or lack of accountability.” Gruber (2014) further emphasized that “time management can be very difficult in that expectations are often for very quick turnarounds and availability, but actual processes and projects take longer to organize and implement.” Other challenges include time zone differences, lack of reliable technology, and lack of participation from group members.

Strategies for Success: Start with a Vision

In Alice in Wonderland we learned that “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” (Quigley, 2013, p. 29). Brown (2014) stated that “good leaders must be able to imagine the future and then communicate it cogently” (p. 8). When leaders clearly and effectively communicate their vision, they can motivate team members, encourage the exchange of ideas, and help identify the goals and priorities necessary to fulfill the vision. Effective leaders give their teams the greatest possible chance for success by involving team members in both the development and fulfillment of the organization’s vision (Maxwell, 2013). To accomplish this, leaders should…

  • Invite team members to help develop the vision
  • Encourage team members to commit to the success of the vision
  • Help each team member identify their role for the success of the vision
  • Celebrate the success of the vision collectively. (p. 87).

Be Personable

In the online environment, communication can feel impersonal. This can lead to participants who are unmotivated to participate in the organization’s vision, goals, and programs. Scott (2014) stated that when leading online, it’s really important to “remember that you are still dealing with human beings and to strive to make the same types of human connections you would anywhere else”. This personalization needs to be incorporated at all levels of communication, despite its format (i.e. email, chat, discussion board, social media feed, online meeting, or over the phone). Effective strategies for being personable in the online environment include:

  • Greet team members as they log on
  • Interact with your team members – show interest in their activities and goals
  • Talk as you would in a face-to-face meeting
  • Smile! Smiling makes a difference in your tone and demonstrates your enthusiasm and encouragement in the team and their activities.

Be a Good Listener

Gruber (2014) further emphasized the importance of listening to our teams and our members:

“Always be listening. I have learned a lot about what my committees, members, and peers need and want from my organization by just listening and reading what they have to say without too much input from me. It can be difficult to balance – as leaders, we need to make decisions and plans and see actions through to completion. That’s our job. But I think we’re much better at that when we’re also constantly listening to the teams and the communities we’re working for and with.”

Effective leaders “engage in reciprocating communications” (Huffaker, 2010, p. 610) rather than just broadcasting information. Effective strategies for encouraging feedback and demonstrating strong listening skills include:

  • Invite and show appreciation for feedback (Brown, 2013; Young, 2007)
  • Ask questions (and then pause for the response).
  • Attribute and give credit for ideas (Young, 2007).
  • Leverage strengths and tap into personal interests (Young,2007).


In conclusion, online leadership can lead “to the accomplishment of shared goals and the objective of delivering products and services that people love” (Quigley, 2013, p. 30). Online leadership permits diverse leaders to collaborate on shared goals using technological platforms over face-to-face interactions. While online leadership can present challenges in time management, reliability of technology, and lack of participation, various strategies can be adopted to help all members of a group feel encouraged to participate. This in turn can result in collaborative and diverse groups who have the ability to focus on the needs of their group, the organization, and their community.


Brown, M. (2013). Seven leadership strategies that improve engagement and keep the employees happy! Leadership Excellence Essentials, HR.com, 03(2014), p. 7-8.

Gruber, S. R. (2014). SLIS ASIS&T Student Chapter President. Email communications.

Quigley, J. (2013). How to enable collective leadership. Journal of Accountancy (www.journalofaccountancy.com ) p. 28-30.

Huffaker, D. (2010). Dimensions of leadership and social influence in online communities. Human Comunication Research, 36, p. 593-617.

Maxwell, J.C. (2013). How successful people lead: Taking your influence to the next lelel. Hachette Book Group. New York, N.Y.

Phelps, K. (2012). Leadership online: Expanding the horizon. New Directions for Student Services, 140(Winter), Wiley Periodicals, Inc. doi: 10.1002/ss.20032

Scott, S. (2014). SLISConnect Past Alumni President, email communication.

Young, S. (2007). Micro messaging: Why great leadership in beyond words. McGraw-Hill. New York.




Elaine Hall lives in Arlington, Washington with her husband and two children. She is in her third year at SLIS with plans to graduate in May 2015. Her academic interests include academic libraries, research, information literacy, and emerging technologies. She is currently working as a graduate student assistant for SLIS and does occasional side work in web design and contracted marketing projects. Visit her LinkedIn profile to learn more.