By Angela Winkle, WSA Co-President
Much is written about the detrimental effects of social media, from amplifying FOMO, to shifting social interactions online, to disrupting the news cycle to the point that political leaders are unable to make difficult decisions that are good in the long term. But what if our social media habits are actually changing our identities and leadership abilities too?
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and renowned media scholar, has recently published ‘Reclaiming Conversation’. The premise of Turkle’s book is that conversation – that most basic technology – is also the most important tool we have, and that digital culture negatively disrupts the quantity and quality of our conversations. Before continuing I must admit that I have not read Turkle’s book (it is – ironically – downloading as I write), but acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen has written an excellent review, which was suggested reading for a recent HBS event I attended.
Now back to the question of important conversations. Turkle (and by derivative, Franzen), talk about all sorts of conversations, from those with parents, children and friends to those with colleagues and business partners. It seems to me that one of the most important conversations are those with yourself. Franzen-channeling-Turkle writes “it is in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are”. So when do we have solitude? Is this really just an extension of the ever-growing hype around mindfulness and meditation? Maybe, but it seems there is a more fundamental message about our habits.
This is not to vilify social media or deny it’s incredible power and advantages. I myself find twitter an excellent way to get up to date news from diverse sources, and FaceBook is invaluable in staying in touch with friends and family on the other side of the world. The question in my mind is what do we lose by filling those those trivial, unplanned moments of alone time – waiting at the bus stop, eating lunch, walking to work or school, – with social media and digital devices? These moments are trivial, until at-scale, they become critical for knowing oneself. Franzen writes, “boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.” By never being bored what are we losing? And how much does it matter?
Recently I attended a speech by the former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. During the speech Gillard shared her lessons on leadership. The first was to know yourself and know your sense of purpose. Gillard says the single best piece of advice she received was to sit down and write down her sense of purpose so that it would guide her and those around her on the toughest days. And Gillard is a leading authority on tough days; her experience as Australia’s first female Prime Minister was regularly colored by vitriol in the parliament and the mainstream media, and demonstration signs such as ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Juliar’. Through incredible personal attacks and tough governmental conditions (Gillard was leading a minority government), Gillard still led the passage of a remarkably high amount of transformative and robust legislation and did it all with an enormously dignified composure.
Reflecting on this performance and the question of how leaders develop a strong sense of self, I wonder if the huge risk for our generation of leaders is that, by failing to embrace the boredom of talking to ourselves in those “trivial-until-at-scale-critical” moments, we lose the opportunity to develop the type of sense of self that enables strong leaders to act with confidence and integrity through the toughest of days. So the question is, are we talking to ourselves enough?