Do communication technologies hinder leadership skill development?

We’re all familiar with the usual pros and cons lists about contemporary communications technologies. Cellphones give us the freedom to conduct business anywhere and anytime, but at the expense of a new intrusion into quality family time. Instant messaging allows us to easily communicate without taking our full attention from our work, but the brevity and non-linearity of those communications–not to mention the limited emotional range of emoticons–makes them extremely prone to misunderstandings. Over the holiday weekend, though, I was introduced to a new criticism of communication technologies, and one that I found very compelling.

My father is blue collar for life. A civil engineer by degree and an environmental engineer in practice, he’s spent the majority of his life (or at least my life) at construction sites, participating in one way or another with either tearing things down or building things up. He likes puzzles and he likes big toys, and when you find a job that offers both those things, you’ve found a job that’s going to send you home covered in grease and dirt five nights a week.

Anyway, the point is that my dad has seen a lot of work sites, he’s bossed a fair number of workers around, and he knows what makes one site, or one crew, work better than another. So I took it quite seriously when, during Thanksgiving dinner, he said the following (paraphrased).

"It used to be, fifteen twenty years ago, that if a guy on a site wasn’t sure what to do, he’d just think about it for awhile and make a decision. It wasn’t always the right decision, but it was a decision, so he learned how to be decisive, and he learned from his mistakes. Nowadays, what does he do? He gets that cellphone and calls his foreman and asks what to do. So these young guys, they don’t know as much as they used to, and they don’t learn as much, because they aren’t forced to make decisions."

(For those of you who’ve heard about my holiday break, this was approximately 4 hours before food poisoning left me curled in a ball on the bathroom floor.)

Questionable nostalgia aside, I think there’s a lot of truth to his observation, and I think it’s observable in many fields and regarding many technologies. The gratuitous email CC to a boss or colleague, to give them a chance to overrule you. The text message to a roommate because you can’t find the sugar. The use of google to answer a question you already know how to answer.

Here at gnovis, we have a tendency to rely on email or gchat to "double-check" with each other before we post our blog entries… rarely does a post go up without at least one other person approving it.

Sometimes, these sorts of behaviors show a commitment to quality and collaboration (I think this is the case with gnovis). Sometimes, they show a desire for certainty or efficiency. These are the positive behaviors enabled by communication technology.

But sometimes, sometimes, these behaviors reflect a lack of leadership, or lack of initiative, or the absence of decision-making ability… and these shortcomings, too, are further enabled by the latest and greatest technical tools.

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.