Leadership, as I often like to say, is the number 1 factor bar none that accounts for organisational success. Even if everything else is set-up to work, to be effective and to be efficient, a bad leader can screw up every advantage, natural or contrived. Nowadays we talk about the big three things driving organisations: People, Processes and Technology, and clearly leadership is in the first category.
My own company relies heavily on technology for its outcomes and its success. It would be true to say that even 15 years ago it would be difficult to conceive of how my company could have worked and functioned without the outstanding technological innovations of the last twenty years. So do I like technology? You bet! And yet I feel too that technology is becoming far too widely accepted without the scrutiny and critical analysis that properly belongs to a leader’s function (or one that the leader would and should commission). Put another way: there are at least three major problems with technology that leaders – in their rush to be successful – seem to conveniently ignore, and I would like to outline them here.
First, that technology has a dreadful habit of sponsoring co-dependence and ultimately servitude. We see this in the street or on the train: the men and women who cannot stop barking into a mobile phone; and those who cannot prevent themselves accessing their emails wherever they are, including at family socials. The great French writer Proust magisterially foresaw this as early as the late Nineteenth Century when a friend asked him to acquire a telephone and Proust asked what a telephone was. The friend patiently explained – it sat on your wall, it rang, you picked it up, you spoke with somebody miles away. But for Proust it was enough to know it rang – ‘I am the servant of that!’ he exclaimed. When bells rang, servants were summoned. He had no intention of being a servant to a bell ringing on his wall; he realised the essential infringement of his liberty that was contained in the very concept of a phone.
Which leads to the second point: the law of unintended consequences. We see technology as being a solution; but always with the solution there seems to be an accompanying deeper problem. After all, only thirty years ago the new technology was supposed to liberate us; we were only going to be working 2 or 3 day weeks as the technology and the robots took the strain. (Not much talk of that now, though, is there? – all conveniently shelved). But of course the precise opposite has happened. Now, with all this technology abounding, both partners HAVE to work, hours of work are massively extended, Sundays or days or rest barely exist in some sectors, and so it goes on. The technology that sets us free has enslaved us (and it has done other things as well when we consider the state of the Earth). What has the leader to say about this?
Finally, technology has subtly led to a belief system that is almost certainly false: the belief in ‘progress’, and in the utopia just round the corner. Just around the corner people will live to 150, just around the corner cancer will be cured, just around the corner there will be a better world in which everyone can chat on Facebook and they won’t need to fight anymore. Yea, just around the corner. As I said before, this belief has been going on for two hundred years, and it is a ‘belief’ – in the sense that it has no more substance than a dream. In many respects the Twentieth Century was the most horrific century in the whole history of the world – it’s difficult now to imagine it perhaps in the comfort of our Western armchairs – and technology played its full part in making it so horrific: the guns of World War One, the gas chambers of World War 2, the atomic bombs, the napalm and so it goes on.
Thus it is that leadership is about discrimination: the discrimination of ideas; of not accepting the prevailing wisdom and contemporary cant that passes for thought but is merely magazine fodder; of challenging the powers of orthodoxy who are bit by bit (and one may say, byte by byte) enslaving the world. We need leaders who harness technology on behalf of the people to empower them. So we are back to a fundamental distinction that many overlook who see technology as being an unlimited ‘good’: technology is good when it genuinely serves the interest of all the people, and technology is bad when it does the opposite – when dictators, plutocrats, oligarchs, ego-driven CEOs and MDs use it to exploit the last farthing out of people.
We need leaders who understand this.