The Task of the New Leader

I will admit that I have been burned out on technology recently, having come through some rough tech experiences over the past year in my business.  I have been frustrated by things like server outages, software compatibility, hardware failures, and even business associates with terrible email and social media etiquette!  At the same time, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and humanity, and this course (ILD 831: Technology and Leadership) offered a way to get out from under some of the practical stresses and look at tech in a broader way.  A recurring theme for me throughout this course has been the question of how technology has shaped (and is shaped by) humanity over the last 500 years, and of course, more recently, how the digital and network revolutions have exponentially accelerated many of these changes.

Early in the semester, we tackled the idea that network technology has “flattened” the world.  Friedman (2007) and Florida (2005) attacked the problem along the general battle lines of technodeterminism and social constructivism.  Friedman suggested that technology eliminates knowledge/social gaps while Florida asserted that it actually increases those gaps because of the contextual structures in which the technology is or is not being used (spikes of activity).  I believe that both approaches have merit and that the interplay between them is where the task of leadership is most daunting.  That is, leaders in the 21st century must be able to understand how technology shapes language, epistemology, cognition, and social relationships, while at the same time, building social/organizational systems in which technology’s positive impact will be maximized.

Tools of the Trade

Looking at individual pieces of technology, our class delved into discussions of how digital tech works, how it is applicable in today’s organizations, and what future innovations may look like.  My classmates and I reviewed the features and functions of many digital tools to unearth what works, what doesn’t, and in what context.  This exercise demonstrated that not all apps are created equal.  Not all social media outlets have Facebook’s sticking power, and many utilities aren’t worth the MBs they take up on your drive.  Leaders may find themselves causing more harm than good if they are simply trying to keep up with technology adoption.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced a poorly planned technology rollout and grimaced as we watched frustrated users rebel against the new time tracking or project management system that middle management put in place.  For me, this underscored the point that not all tech is good tech, and just because we can doesn’t mean we should (…force technology on our schools or organizations).  What we should be doing, though, is moving toward an implementation of technology that enables “us” to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and move forward under the power of the collective intelligence.

Knowing and Learning

Weinberger (2011) and Shirky (2008) both emphasize that technology has indeed reshaped human epistemology.  Aside from the technical functioning of the “net,” these authors carefully demonstrate the new shape of knowledge, the new heuristics we’re developing to “filter forward” and “find stopping points.”  Weinberger (2011), in particular, carefully outlines how the net is limitless, lumpy, sticky, and democratic.  In true media ecology tradition, Weinberger outlines all of the ways that networked knowledge and “social epistemology” (Turner, 2012) change because of the technological framework that is now common to so many…in developed countries, at least.  Husband’s (n.d.) concept of Wirearchy furthers our understanding of networked knowledge, specifically the ways in which social norms are transmitted.  This is of particular importance for leaders and organizational members, since our concepts of power, deference, and authority are inextricably bound up with our social norms.  Thus, we find that within networked societies, the very notion of power and authority has changed, along with the ways in which we value the knowledge of the so-called “experts.”  We are now collectively more expert than any one expert, no matter how credentialed.  The ramifications for understanding power dynamics in a digital-technology-based world are long-reaching and provide fertile ground for future scholarship.

The Haves (internet) and Haves Not

While “the net” is generally thought to be completely ubiquitous, estimates suggest that less than half of the world’s population has access to the internet (Internet Live Stats, 2016).  The split between access and non-access is much like Ong’s (1982) distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  Though, because of the nature of technology, specifically connected, mobile technology, many of Ong’s (oral v. literate) psychodynamic characteristics collapse and new iterations emerge (Jarc, 2014).  Within these discussions, I proposed that “internet users” at a fundamental cognitive level are more similar than different.  Within the 40% of people on the planet that have access to the internet, however, there are immense gaps in usage habits, connection speeds, preferred devices, and content consumed; these differences could potentially lead to huge gaps in collective intelligence, and must be considered in the move to artificial intelligence, collaborative working, and disruptive business models.

Because of the uncertainty in the future of digital technology, there are many ethical considerations to consider.  To my point above, access to technology, and the rights that users have regarding connectivity are critical.  Reviewing the ethical considerations of technology allowed me to think about thinking about the morals of technology.  That is, as new questions and problems arise, so to must new ways of thinking about what’s “right.”  I dove into the world of net-neutrality and encountered compelling arguments on both sides of the discussion.  Most importantly, perhaps, is the challenge of developing critical meta-level analysis of the tools, the users, and the content found in the connected world.

Looking Ahead

Finally, we must reflect on (and implement) technology and leadership in aggregate.  Leaders need to develop technical skills and digital literacy in order to lead by example.  We need to keep a finger on the pulse of digital innovation while filtering forward (Weinberger, 2011) useful innovations and passing on problematic ones.  All this needs careful situational/contextual analysis, and as such, I believe that leaders must continue to develop emotional and social intelligence.  A leader’s EQ will be on display as they teach the machines how to learn and work alongside human teams.  Leaders can no longer rely on title and hierarchy for power; authority must come from the ability to coordinate nodes within the networked workforce.  No one is quite certain where technology will take us in 10, 20, or 30 years, but good, thoughtful leadership will help make sure that society grows more prosperous as a result.  There have been/will be challenges and pitfalls, and it’s up to us digital natives to help future generations learn from our missteps.

This is the task of the new leader.


Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. Atlantic Monthly. 48-51.

Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat, 3.0. London: Picador.

Internet Live Stats (2016). Internet users [webpage]. Retrieved from

Husband, J. (n.d.) What is wierarchy? Wirearchy [website]. Retrieved from

Jarc, J. (2014) Mobiliteracy: Applying Ong’s psychodynamic characteristics to users of mobile communication technology. Communication Research Trends, 33 (1), p. 21-26.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  New York: Methuen

Shirky, C. (2008).  Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations.  New York: Penguin Press

Turner, S. (2012). Double heuristics and collective knowledge: the case of expertise. Studies in Emergent Order, 5, 64-85

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

11 thoughts on “The Task of the New Leader

  1. James:

    I enjoyed your final post. You did a great job of outlining our lessons over the past seven weeks. I was especially drawn to your comment that “All this needs careful situational/contextual analysis, and as such, I believe that leaders must continue to develop emotional and social intelligence”. I recall that both you and I went back and forth regarding the “merit” of leadership checklists and guides. Flexibility and adaptability seem to be requirements of today’s leaders, but can this go too far? Perhaps the importance of a moral compass helps guide a leader through these ever-changing times?

    I look forward to your thoughts and best of luck with your continued studies!


    1. Hi Krista – thanks for the kind words.
      I think that I would agree with you about flexibility with boundaries. I often come back to a passage of the Tao Te Ching when I think about the role of the new leader:
      “The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty
      space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is
      fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that
      their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls)
      to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its
      use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for
      profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.”
      # 11, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

      What I think is so beautiful about this is that the vessel or the building can take on any shape, but it’s what’s happening within that shape that counts. We need walls… that’s how we know rules, norms, etc. Without those walls, anything that happens isn’t happening anywhere specific, and who knows how that will end up.

      I highly recommend that ALL leadership scholars pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching. The paradoxes are so rich for interpretation, the poetry is beautiful, and the lessons are timeless. I think it’s especially potent in the age of the decentralized, servant leader.

  2. James,
    Great job in putting together such a comprehensive post. Really helped me reflect back trough the last couple of months. So appreciated your straightforward line that we need to focus on finding ways technology can help us share knowledge, generate ideas and discover the power in collective intelligence. That helps put some boundaries around what I feel is an immense task. You also mention how we will have to help others learn from our missteps. If we, as leaders, have lost our implicit power because of the diffused distribution of power due of the web then is it possible that we will actually be most valuable as leaders in our role as guinea pigs in this new order? As we fail we learn and others learn from our example. If we try to play it safe we may minimize our value. This article from the Center for Creative Leadership presents several thoughts on how leadership development has fallen out of step with the needs of future leadership. It was particularly interesting to me since my new role is specifically leadership development and based on the article – my department could use some tweaking. Of particular interest I believe to you would be the reference to “vertical development” which is development the learner has to earn for themselves. It looks to the developmental stages adults go through; at each stage comprehending their world in more complex and inclusive ways. If you are not already familiar with this concept I believe you will really enjoy. So great to enjoy another class with you! ~Tricia

    1. Thanks, Tricia!
      Great resources here, and than you for putting them in the context of your professional experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from your job through the many conversations we’ve had in ILD.

      I would agree with you that new leaders have to be willing to take risks, admit mistakes, and learn to move forward. I think that this is succinct element of the postheroic leadership style that’s necessary in the digital age. An heroic leader can’t be perceived to be “wrong” – their followers wouldn’t follow them if they were fallible, would they? But what we see, then, is that no one benefits but the leader. Failing to learn from experience out of a desire to maintain infallibility is just juvenile and ineffective.

      The steps in the vertical development literature seem very appropriate to this discussion, and I’m looking forward to digesting the material a bit more over the weekend. Thank you for bringing that to this post!

      1. I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts about leaders failing. I am going to reflect more on that because I have been fairly open about my failures to my direct reports. But I believe I could do a better job in being more transparent and helping to connect the dots in order to reinforce learning. Thanks for the nudge. ~Tricia

  3. Nice post, James. Interesting how Krista, Tricia and I each singled out different points you made – for me, it was “…Leaders can no longer rely on title and hierarchy for power; authority must come from the ability to coordinate nodes within the networked workforce.” To Krista’s point…and yours…determining what is “right” within a global context will continue to be challenging!

    1. Thanks, Dr. Watwood!

      Ethics and wise judgement will certainly be a big part of organizations in the future. It will be interesting to keep monitoring shift in the leadership literature away from the behavioral/attitudinal lens into the social realm. Much has emerged in the last 10 years or so, and I think we’ve got a long way to go!

  4. Nicely done, James! I really appreciate your synthesis of these main themes encountered on this learning journey.

    Similar to Tricia’s previous comment, I loved your treatment in the “Tools of the Trade” section…particularly that “not all tech is good tech” and that leadership’s role is to facilitate “an implementation of technology that enables ‘us’ to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and move forward under the power of the collective intelligence.” Your drawing attention to “us” seems a very important part of these conversations about tech! We can get so caught up and enamored with the technology that we lose sight of the important functions and capabilities of facilitating actual and meaningful human connections. In fact, Ilze Zigurs (2003) recommended that leadership in virtual teams consider team building that leveraged face-to-face encounters where possible, to help establish a baseline relationship. The author further argued, technology does not “predetermine those [leadership] environments. Instead, teams can use technology as a starting point, adapt it to their needs in an evolutionary way, and learn to communicate effectively and creatively through new and ever-evolving environments” (p. 349). I agree, this requires thoughtful and intentional leadership…that is capable of embracing and leveraging tech without losing site of it from a much broader perspective.



    Zigurs, I. (2003, Spring). Leadership in virtual teams: Oxymoron or opportunity? Organizational Dynamics, Vol.31(4).

    1. EA – Appreciate the kind words.

      I thought the “us” distinction was pretty important because of Weinberger’s and Shirky’s emphasis on the collection rather than any one individual. That theme kept creeping up throughout the semester, and I really think it’s accurate. If any one of us is left out of the network, the network is weaker, knowledge less sharp, and innovation less interesting! Tangentially, I think this is similar to the idea that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In this way, technology can become a matter of social justice (I think it is). But also, it speaks to the ways in which a leader must pay attention to everyone involved in a given network, system, or team. Critically, the leader’s job is to make sure that the system works for everyone, not just those with power.

      Your point about creating meaningful connections is a good one. I think that our cohort is a good example of this. Having met you all during orientation makes my online experience with you very different. I’m glad we got to meet face-to-face!

      Thanks for weighing in on this!

  5. James,

    Another great post! I love how you integrated the course themes with so many different aspects—history, business, society, culture, leadership, economics, and epistemology, as well as human factors. Your comments on the digital divide resonated with me, as usual. The Pew article you referred to, “Searching for Work in the Digital Era” (, says that workers are using smartphones to create resumes and fill out forms, but this is hampered by the small form factor of phones. The article noted that using smart phones to apply for jobs was predominant among Americans with lower education levels, and an implication could be lower income levels. It seems that an inexpensive and simple solution would be to enable phones to effortlessly hook up to TVs and keyboards so everyone could fill out forms easily. Getting people involved in solutions might make a big difference. I am curious, do you engage your students in practical projects that chip away at the digital divide? Thank you for all of the insights you shared in this course!


    1. Hi CatOnKB (still love the name, btw).
      Great question about engaging students to chip away at the digital divide. No, but we definitely should be. One thing that’s hard, I think, is the timing of the coursework we’re doing in the digital media department. They’re in and out in 2 years (we hope), and they have to go from nothing to semi-professional. I wish that we had a little more flexibility in the curriculum. Beyond that, I do try to give the students work that makes sense rather than just work for work’s sake. It would be great to have them start to figure out solutions for everyday problems or issues that they face… specifically in the realm of learning, developing, designing, etc. I should be more vigilant about that in the future- thanks for the push!

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