It’s Amazing How Much Technology Negatively Affects Our Leaders

As a lifelong student of Leadership, I’m sure I look at certain people and situations a bit differently than my peers.  When observing those at the helm of large or small tech companies, others might think genius or insanely wealthy where I tend to look for greatness or Leader.  All too often, and to my disappointment, I end up with something like “hmmm leader… not so much”.

The current state of Leadership in the tech sector has recently come to my attention as mini-crises seem to occur daily.  Wall Street this, tech companies that…  the rising turnover at executive levels of various companies.  These all definitely point to something not quite right at the top and everyone’s pointing fingers and playing the blame game.

And as it is with everything, it all comes down to leadership.

Look no further than Groupon and Zynga for real life examples. They are perfect studies of what happens when there is a clear lack of leadership.  Both companies are in free-fall with no end in sight, and both are now seeing early investors, shareholders (even founders) cashing out before it craters to rock bottom.

Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Surely I don’t blame a founder for wanting to secure their future after years of hard work, but based on recent actions the lack of faith is clear as day.

Why all the focus on Leadership?  Well, I recently stumbled across one of the most incredible articles on the subject, Solitude and Leadership, originally a lecture given by William Deresiewicz to a class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.   I can only imagine what it must have been like in the room that day, reading it now still yields a strong sense of how important leadership means to our military.

But as I read the article something unsettling occurred to me: are we, as an industry, giving Leadership its due respect?  Are we adequately preparing individuals to lead organizations, some numbering in the tens of thousands?  Or are we inadvertently focusing on the wrong skills and placing the wrong people at the front?  These individuals may be highly intelligent, top of their class, technically oriented and gifted with the ability to communicate with machines, but do they embody basic abilities to connect, communicate and lead others on a human level.

Accomplishment doesn’t necessarily mean people are adequate to lead.  Highly qualified people can have a CS degree from a top school, be a grifted engineer, and had the foresight to be a co-founder of a startup or previously earned millions from a well placed bet.  All those things make for a successful individual, but they have nothing to do with understanding the principles of leadership.  High tech and human interaction are pretty much opposite sides of a broad spectrum.

To put it bluntly, are we appointing the wrong people only to see the ship go sideways?

To viscerally grasp quality Leadership, one has to have a deep understanding of human motivation, psychology and sociology.  Basically, a leader must inherently know what makes people tick, and why.   The dynamics of human nature is one of the most challenging arenas to master, its more art than science.  There’s no formula or equation to use when approaching another person in the heat of the moment.  It takes awareness of the situation, yourself and the other person – all at the same time – to best handle a tense or high pressure situation.  Some people naturally posses such talents and can handle things with ease and grace.

And some don’t.

I believe this is where well intentioned but misplaced individuals fail promising companies.

The entire article gripped me, full of lessons and anecdotes on how we need to review the basics of human nature and leadership.  But a few things jumped out at me I want to share with our community in hopes it can help get our leaders back on solid ground.

Solitude is true leadership

It’s quite interesting how Deresiewicz refers to solitude as true leadership. How can time alone bring clarity to thoughts and ideas, leading to better leadership?  To find out, a simple glance around will give some perspective.  If you look around you will notice most people tend to be excellent sheep.  They flock around, listening to and following others, and are ultimately way too distracted “climbing the greasy pole of whatever opportunity they are after at the moment” to actually think clearly.

In short, rarely does anyone actually take the time alone to think for themselves.

“I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”

Leaders would do themselves (and their followers) justice by simply taking more time alone to think independently.  Only by letting all parts of the mind come into play will they arrive at an original thought.

Deresiewicz believes we have a crisis of Leadership in this country.  “What we don’t have is Thinkers.  People who actually think for themselves – independently, creatively, flexibly, strategically.”

And he is absolutely right.  What we need is better thinkers, independent thinkers.  True leaders are able to take the time to think things through for themselves, and then have courage to make decisions even when those decisions are not popular but in fact the right thing to do.  Courage to think and act independently – for the right reasons – is what Leadership is all about.

Learn to think for yourself

To think clearly and independently a Leader must remove themselves from distraction and influence.  And when I say distractions, I mean all of them.   Today, more than ever, leaders are so bombarded with interruptions via email, texts, social networks, employees, bosses, media, etc… it’s no wonder they can’t gain any clarity of thought.  And studies have proven people do not multitask effectively – at all.   In fact, multitasker’s pretty much suck at everything they are doing when they are engaging in numerous activities at once. Various studies have shown multitasking only further distracts the individual and can actually impair ones ability to think clearly.

This is why I believe Twitter and Facebook, fascinating as they may be in our world today, are killing our ability to actually think clearly and independently, taking with them our uniqueness and innovation as collateral damage.  We’re now all dopamine feigns, searching for the next high pumped directly into our veins via short tidbits and chunks of useless information.  It’s like we are all now thinking in short tweets…  And according to Deresiewicz, this is not good:

“Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.” (Emphasis mine)

A.  Constant.  Stream.  Of.  Other.  Peoples.  Thoughts…  No wonder we are having problems thinking for ourselves.

When was the last time you found yourself in the solitude of concentration?  How about being lost for hours because you were so damn focused on working through a challenging task you forgot about time?  It’s probably been a while due to all the chiming and dinging of gadgets stealing from you any time alone or peace of mind.

Maybe unplugging for a certain amount of time each day or week is exactly what you need to progress your life.  It’s amazing to realize that without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

Quality Leadership and technology are inversely correlated

As a society I fear we have become too distracted by the “efficiencies“ of technology we have lost sight of how to actually lead effectively.  The problem is the more we use technology the less we actually communicate with people.

Great leadership requires mastering humans, not machines.  It requires face-to-face communication (not Instant Messaging or emailing) so the leader can gauge a person’s non-verbal cues and adjust their delivery accordingly.  Leaders must be able to read an individual simply by looking into their eyes, studying their facial and body movements to decipher what that twitch or brow raise might mean.

To become a better leader, simply use technology less and spend more time with your people.  But beware, it takes an all-encompassing person, someone who is emotionally stable and can handle being outside their comfort zone as they address challenging issues with someone possibly less stable.  During a though conversation, you must be able to hear them out and handle their objections in a way that, in the end, results in saving the face of the company and everyone involved.

One of the best ways to determine if you are cut out to lead is to ask yourself “do I actually like talking to people?”  It’s a simple question but the answer tells a lot.  Indeed, intelligence is required to be a leader, but it’s people’s emotional intelligence that makes them great leaders.  Daniel Goleman, in his industry-leading work on emotional intelligence and leadership, writes:

” My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.”

It’s obvious by now the above description of a leader naturally fits certain people and naturally dismisses others.  My suggestion is two-fold.  First, as leaders we do a better job of identifying naturally gifted individuals and place them in their appropriate positions – be it a leadership position or not.  And second, we realize the slippery slope of technology on which we are currently standing, how it affects our interactions with others and understand if our leaders fall they will surely take us down with them.

Disclaimer:  It took me a number of attempts to finish this article, as I had to check my email, send a few tweets and see what my friends were up to on Facebook.  I know… I’m working on it too!

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