Has technology corrupted leadership?

AndreBy Andre van Heerden

Our dependency on technology keeps growing. Yet no one seems to understand or control it. This makes us feel powerless and victimised:

“We find it more and more difficult to achieve a sense of continuity, permanence, or connection with the world around us.”
The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch:

Most of us prefer to ignore how technology impacts the way we think and see the world.

The printing press, photography, cinema, television, and now the burgeoning electronic media have all affected human cognition in ways we can scarcely begin to understand. This is despite our astonishing advances in neuroscience.

The consequences for our attitudes and behaviour continue to exercise the minds of psychologists and sociologists, yet without any assurance their diagnoses are accurate.

It is tempting to link the technological revolution with the global leadership crisis. Indeed, astute Leadership crisisanalysts like Lasch quoted above, raise troubling arguments about the narcissism that has emerged almost simultaneously.

Narcissism has become a plague in the postmodern West. Consider only the mental health crisis and the incidence of relationship dysfunction. How could a narcissistic society not affect the quality of leadership?

I LOVE METhe question is urgent. Is it possible to lead someone who is totally self-absorbed?  We need to fully recognize that it’s easy enough to mislead such a person, simply by exploiting his or her insatiable need for self-gratification and security.

But is it possible to inspire such a person to be the best he or she can be in working with others for the good of all? That would seem to be an impossible task.

And then there’s the corollary. Is it possible for someone who is totally self-absorbed to be an effective leader?  Again, one feels not.

In reality, the emergence of post modern narcissism, which of course is rather more than mere self-absorption, has been eroding leadership for a long time. It ‘s been distorting the attitudes and allegiances of politicians and managers, and also those they’re meant to lead.  Few would doubt new technology promotes narcissism in various ways.

Consider its impact on democracy.  The democratic system as we know it could not function without the technology that either engages or enslaves the minds of millions, enabling the entertainment industry to become the foremost fabricator of public opinion.

The mountains of money that politicians feel compelled to spend in the media to match the noise Political spendinggenerated by their opponents, suggest technology has corrupted not only rational debate, but also ethical conduct at all levels in the political arena.

When we consider these realities in business, and the radical transformations of domestic and social life, we might suspect technology itself is forging a world view inimical to leadership, which is meant to promote accountability, cooperation, responsible freedom, community, and justice.

However this is a misguided suspicion. Technology might help to fuel narcissism, but it doesn’t cause it in the first place.

How we use media, what and how much content we consume, is our choice that is inevitably informed by our worldview. In turn this is shaped by our education—education and not schooling, which are two very different things.

The only reason technology influences people on a much greater scale than books do is that getting information via technology is quick and easy. Obtaining information from books is more time-consuming, requiring concentrated effort.

Reputation-Management (1)The real problem is the flood of easily accessible negative content and misinformation channelled through the electronic media.

The confused and corrupted mind-set of post modern consumerism typically promotes values–what I choose, rather than virtue–what is good. It encourages self-gratification rather than the common good, preferring: what is useful to that which is true, convenience rather than sacrifice, and the life of ease not the challenge of work.  People in thrall to that kind of world view are unlikely to use technology wisely.

Like science in general, technology is a tool, and ethically neutral.  It becomes morally significant only in how it’s used by human beings. It is destructive of human flourishing only to the extent we allow it to be so.

People of virtue, that is, those with practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and a sense of justice, will find technology the blessing it is meant to be, as we open up new frontiers in the history of humankind.  And people of virtue are the people who are equipped to provide leadership.

In short, the challenge for leaders is cultural and not technological.

That is, the challenge is what it has always been – dealing with negative attitudes that flow from misguided world views and misshapen character.  The tools required are also the same – inspiration through personal example, clarity of vision, resolute commitment to a corporate code of conduct, and an insistence on high standards of personal virtue.

That’s the way to influence people so that technology becomes a boon rather than a burden.

Here are five simple questions to audit the humanity of any particular world view:

1 Do you respect the human dignity of all people?
2 Do you recognize the freedom of all people to be the best that they can be?
3 Do you acknowledge the reality of human reason as the bridge across which all people can come together?
4 Do you recognize and value the potential of all people, and encourage the fulfilment of such potential?
5 Are you committed to a proper stewardship of the environment as the common home of all people?


Andre van Heerden heads the corporate leadership programme The Power of Integrity™, and is author of several books on leadership including Leaders and Misleaders, and  Leading like you mean it.

Since studying law at Rhodes University in South Africa, he’s been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an immigrant, an account director for leading multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. You can reach him at www.powerofintegrity.com or on LinkedIn.


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