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Leading From a Laptop

So recently, while driving, I passed a billboard sign for a nearby university that had a picture of a keyboard with a chat bubble coming out of it. The words in the chat bubble were “be a leader.” While the ad is eye-catching, and perhaps pithy, I take issue with the concept it conveys and the potential misrepresentation of leadership.

One. Does. Not. Lead. From. A. Computer.

Leadership is an interpersonal skill.

You are welcome to read about it in a book, take an online class about it. And, computers are very useful for send emails, type up documents, and number of other things.

But leadership, in order to be done well, requires interacting with other human beings.

To even hint on a billboard that one can lead from a computer is a misrepresentation and frankly an alarming picture for what our future holds if not left unchecked.

You see, the ad is targeted at those who already enjoy using the computer. It’s a basic tenet of advertising. You show images of things that people like in order to attract the audience that you’re looking for.

Bikini-clad women selling men’s cologne have been a pretty common device, regardless of how you feel about gender equality, because the target demographic, the buyers of men’s cologne, were those, generally, who appreciated looking at bikini-clad women.

Okay, maybe I have digressed too far. The point is this: A basic tenet of advertising is to put a picture of the thing that your target audience would like, and that will help attract their attention.

So, I’m drawing the conclusion that the flashy laptop is on this billboard because the target audience already likes laptops.

Historically, an affinity for spending time at one’s keyboard is often disproportionate to one’s affinity for spending time in the presence of and the company of others.

Stereotype or not, fair or not, there is data that shows that when people spend more time with their computer they have less time to spend with people.

But to be an effective leader, we must spend time with those we lead.

For just a moment let me set the challenge of remote and geographically disparate teams aside. For just a moment let’s focus on intact teams that exist within the same geographic boundaries.

I do not believe that we need to make eye contact with each other all day every day.

I do, however, believe that predictable, regular, meaningful, human interactions are absolutely essential to our success as leaders, as organizations, as teams.

In those moments together, we need to set the tone and the vision, we need to smile and encourage, sometimes we need to hold accountable and correct, and we need to understand and value each person.

Not photos of people, not two-dimensional text-based list of interests and hobbies or accomplishments or responsibilities. Three dimensional, multifaceted, engaging, and interesting, and different-from-us people.

For those of us who lead to remote teams, or even volunteer groups who cannot be together on a regular basis, we must find a way to create basic human interactions. While it may technically not be feasible to get everyone together on a regular basis, as a leader, we should make a concerted effort to meet each member of our team.

We should establish a cadence of group interactions – maybe they’re conference calls or Skype’s or video-conferences most of the time. Maybe they’re only phone calls.

But part of what distinguishes the human race from so many other species is our need for, and ability to connect with each other.

In one volunteer group I’m a part of, for example, we’ve committed to email and chat between meetings, but at least once a month we have a 30 minute phone call, and once each quarter we meet together in one place.

I derive so much joy in watching the team interact and motivate each other. For a group of volunteers, we’ve had no absenteeism at all to our group meetings. That says something, doesn’t it?

Do I believe we would be as effective if we didn’t meet, if we conducted all over computer? I do not.

I believe that people that can engage with others bring the team together. I believe that we are smarter together. I believe that the natural synergies that teams create when lead in a positive and innovative way to be greater than the sum of each individual.

And that is leadership. It’s bringing out the best in others.

I believe we can bring out the best in each other more effectively if we do it face-to-face rather than behind the screen.

I will freely admit that I am not actively serving on the marketing and communications team of that particular university. I will also freely admit that I do not have the context as to why this particular billboard was created, or what it’s intended to do. All I have is my own response to it.

The intent of this message is not to be critical. It is however to raise the question, are you leading by example, interaction, conversation, or are you leading from behind a keyboard?  If you find that you’re spending more time on the latter, take a moment to dedicate to the former.

Sinikka headshot 2017

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day.


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