The wonders of technology are all around us. Smart phones, ipads, kindles, email, apps, GPS, blogs and twitter to name just a few examples. But step back for a moment and consider the impact of this technology on leadership.
There is a famous essay in the the Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid“. The author, Nicholas Carr, reflects on how his daily Internet use, searching for information and skipping from topic to topic, seemed to change how his brain thinks. Gone were the days when he could immerse himself in a novel or long article. The sort of focused attention required for deep thinking had given way to a constant flow of information. He concludes:
What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
I can relate to Carr’s observation. The increase in information is threatening to drown out the attention and focus required to really think through a problem or reflect on an issue.
If this is true, then how is this new technology impacting leadership? William Deresiewicz, the former Yale professor and literary critic, delivered a lecture to the plebe class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that takes on this subject. The title of his speech was Solitude and Leadership. At first blush these seem to be two unrelated topics, but he makes a good case for why leaders need solitude. He also points out that as technology intrudes into our lives and our brains, finding the solitude necessary to be a great leader is becoming more rare.
While at Yale, Deresiewicz was surrounded by high achievers and that got him thinking about what makes a great leader?:
Does getting straight A’s make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even excellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning.
The distinction that high-achievers are not necessarily leaders is important. Too often, in our culture, excellence and leadership are lumped together. Deresiewicz argues that, on elite campuses and institutions in this country we have enough achievers; what we don’t have are thinkers. People who can think for themselves, wrestle with a concepts, and come up with an original idea.
Like Carr, Deresiewicz identifies technology as part of the problem:
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.
Too much exposure and immersion in this technology leads to group think. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Pack Mentality Grips Hedge Funds, explains how market swings are being amplified by the herd mentality of money managers. If we had more independent thinkers on Wall Street would the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 even occurred? Or at least been less severe?
Perhaps the greatest American investor ever, Warren Buffett, prides himself on his independent thinking. Consider this: for years he did not have a computer on his desk, no Bloomberg machine spewing information and pushing data at him. He preferred to live and work in Omaha, far away from Wall Street, so he would not be distracted by other people’s thoughts and opinions. When researching stocks he preferred to close the office door and immerse himself in an annual report, so he could draw his own conclusions about the merits of investing in a company.
If you want to be a leader, don’t bombard your brain with a continuous flow of data, rather seek the solitude required to develop your own independent thinking and original ideas. You can do this by unplugging yourself from the Net and reading a book or engaging in a conversation with a trusted friend or going on a walk. Don’t let technology prevent you from finding the strength and wisdom to challenge conventional thinking and become a great leader.