Our world so often strikes us as perverse and paradoxical. That is, with our exponentially increasing use of digital technology we feel increasingly connected to so many people – befriended by multitudes, but truly known to and respected by so few, if by any. Moreover, while maintaining all of these seemingly significant personal connections, so many of us, regardless of our roles or responsibilities, feel called upon to make important decisions.
Not to be misunderstood, loyal readers of the FCBJ who have been reading this monthly column since 1994, I am still the guy who loves life and the craziness and chaos thereof, still the guy described by a colleague as someone who “lusts for ambiguity” and revels in writing about and practicing action-oriented and value based leadership. But I worry more than ever about what our hyper-cyber-tech world is doing to both the nature of leadership specifically and our interpersonal relationships in general.
Admittedly, I am a techno-skeptic (though not a technophobe) – and I do use a smart phone (an oxymoron?) and an iPad. However, I do not engage with Facebook (or any of the myriad social media variations thereof, which seem to emerge monthly). As the rock singer Joe Walsh says, “I am an analog man in a digital world” – but one who does recognize the efficacy and efficiency offered by much of the new technology. My basic concern, though, to repeat, revolves around the impact of this incredibly pervasive and persuasive technology on our relationships with one another (and with our inner selves) in both our professional and personal lives.
Even more specifically, I worry about that impact and how it affects us in our respective leadership roles -- and, remembering, of course, as has been emphasized in this column for nearly twenty years, that everyone exercises leadership responsibilities regardless of his or her organizational or institutional position. Leadership knows no restrictive or definitional boundaries, especially when interpersonal relationships are involved. Therein rests the rub.
When we are digitally connected, do the descriptors we value so highly – trust, love, integrity, respect, and dignity – remain viable? The specific book which triggered this column is Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks. Brought to my attention by a new friend, this book proved to be an engaging, enlightening, and thought-provoking read. Moreover, different passages therein kept bringing other so-insightful books to mind. A couple of these books have been discussed in previous columns, and all of them, as does Dignity, deal with the issue of communication and human relationships in our digital world.
Just the subtitles of these books (all authored by individuals professionally connected with the cybertech world) carry a significant message. To wit: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Our Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (whose earlier books were pointedly pro-technology); The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives by Shankar Vedantam; Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain; The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen; The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr; I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy by Lori Andrews; Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut by David Shenk; You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (called by many “the father of virtual reality technology”), and, finally, a novel (all of the previous works are non-fiction) by the internationally respected advocate of literacy and human rights, Dave Eggers, The Circle, which has no subtitle, but if it did, it would be “The Death of Privacy and the Demise of Dignity in a Digitally Transparent Technosphere.”
You don’t have to read all of these or the many other treatises written by cybertech professionals now anxious about what is happening to the millions and millions of digital users. Many of our FCBJ readers don’t have that kind of time. Being retired, I do. Just re-read the above subtitiles and then pick one. Remember the adage about “the worm who lives in horseradish and believes the whole world is horseradish” – until it eats its way out. Horseradish – our digital world.
Several statements about leadership by Hicks in Dignity would serve well here (recognizing that she has worked with leaders in all venues of life nationally and internationally). She asserts that many leaders “share an area of ignorance: they don’t know what to do when faced with people who have experienced violations of their dignity….” Their default reaction is to assert even more “authority and control” covering their own vulnerability and enhancing that of the others at the table. As she rightly insists, we should allow ourselves to feel “the power of each other’s worth…every time we come face to face with another person.” As every leader should remember every moment, “Honoring people’s dignity is the easiest and fastest way to bring out the best in them.” And that, of course, should be any leader’s top priority.
Let’s move above and beyond all of our digital devices, even if just for a moment. Let’s replace cynical discord (so enhanced by the “reply all” button) with “face to face” civil discourse. Reconnect with your best inner self and the evolving selves of others. Reconnect in our age of digital disconnect with the dignity inherent in yourself and others, the dignity which we all deserve. Read, reflect, lead on.
Dr. Joel Jones is President Emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.