HBR Blogs: Does Leadership Change in a Web 2.0 World?

I recently heard a retired general, a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, quoted as saying the only way he knew what was really happening was to be with his troops in the jungle. He was famously absent from staff meetings, wanting to be in the middle of the action.

I also recall attending a leadership course on the Gettysburg battlefield. During the battle that made those killing fields famous, there were no means of communications other than shouting over the din of mayhem. From hill to hill, station to station, no one knew what was happening.

Today, a general might take out her cell phone or more secure, sophisticated device to call the front lines — and if no one answers, she could tune into CNN to get the latest on what’s happening. A GPS system might also trace the progress of troops. But a smart general knows that there is no substitute for directly seeing and sensing what’s really happening on the front — even with the advent of the most sophisticated information technology and communications. And a brief physical presence always inspires the troops.

Like many executives, I use advanced technologies to manage and do my job. But I keep asking whether I’m a Luddite because my leadership style has not changed over the years, even though I’m “wired”. Without question, technology today enables leaders to communicate more broadly and quickly and to hear from many points of contact at one time. I can also effectively teleconference with people I know — but, as we have learned, remote communications don’t work well with people you don’t know. I have no doubt that I am a better leader because I am more current and knowledgeable thanks to technology. But I worry more that the world of web 2.0 — and what comes after — will distract, not add, from the skill of leaders, make them more, rather than less, remote.

Last week, I had lunch with the young CEO of an emerging company. He had come to seek my advice. He spent the first five minutes of our meeting reading messages on his PDA. Fortunately, there was someone else at the table with whom to talk. That made the meeting less awkward. Technology, in the hands of unskilled leaders, can create distance, and even a false sense of security. A person may believe that they are “connected”, but that connection may be superficial.

Of course, a very skilled communicator can reach and inspire thousands of people through electronic medium. The great televangelists come to mind. Now their messages can be propelled by Twitter,YouTube, and Facebook.

But leadership is not proselytizing. Real leadership requires relationships and personal engagement. Nothing I see in technology has yet to replace these qualities. I believe that technology will enable new business models, but not “new leadership”.

http://blogs.hbr.org/imagining-the-future-of-leadership/2010/05/does-leadership-change-in-a-we.html

(Editor’s note: This post is part of a six-week blog series on how leadership might look in the future. The conversations generated by these posts will help shape the agenda of a symposium on the topic in June 2010, hosted by HBS’s Nitin NohriaRakesh Khurana, and Scott Snook.)

Jim Champy is a consultant and author. His newest book, Reengineering Healthcare, A Manifesto for Radically Rethinking Healthcare Delivery, will be released in June.
(Editor’s note: This post is part of a six-week blog series on how leadership might look in the future. The conversations generated by these posts will help shape the agenda of a symposium on the topic in June 2010, hosted by HBS’s Nitin NohriaRakesh Khurana, and Scott Snook.)

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