Technology is a tool
Question: Through the effective use of online social media, a small group of political amateurs were able to organize and instigate street demonstrations across Egypt that now threaten to topple the Mubarak regime. How does their success change our notions of what leadership in the Internet age is all about?
The influence of online social media would be grossly overrated if held responsible for initiating the civil unrest and demonstrations in Egypt. What it did do was enable the organic nature of non-hierarchical leadership to emerge in a highly visible manner. Civil unrest and episodic protests in Egypt existed before last week. The Internet is a lightening-speed communication tool, and permits the immediate and simultaneous dissemination of information to like-minded groups of individuals. The opportunity to influence the opinions and actions of others occurs at an unparalleled rate of speed.
But technology is a tool, a methodology for mobilizing movements, not the reason for civil upheaval. Several conditions--social, political and economic--converged to ignite the discontent of the citizens of Egypt. The technologically savvy leaders were tuned into the times, accurately read the emotional state of the public and seized the opportunity to channel the ever-growing discontent into a massive protest.
Strategic leaders are able to read the readiness of a group or culture to act, and through the right actions and messaging can incite them to do what they have long wished could be done. If the people of Egypt hadn't been "ready" to protest, Facebook, iChat and Twitter would not have been useful tools.
Movements are not spontaneous; they always have some pre-history. When Rosa Parks sat in a seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she wasn't the first African American to do this and to be arrested for doing so. She became the symbol of the absurdity of institutional racism and the nation's moral incongruity. Her selection was a propitious moment in history that leaders of the Civil Rights movement could use to bring attention to the need for change.
Leadership in the information age will have to use every tool available to communicate meaning and equip others to engage in constructive problem solving. But the power that the Internet gives can also be misused, and this is why leaders must retain clarity about what it means to be constructive in communicating. In this new age of instant and equal access to information, leaders will still have to operate with integrity and learn how to build trust and relationships. In order to do this they will need to be "solid in the center and flexible around the edges."
This requires being in touch with some time-tested core values, being able to listen with depth and understanding, having the ability to respect a diversity of perspectives, and having the realization that no one person or group is the final arbiter of truth. These characteristics hold true no matter the historical period or rapidity with which information can be transmitted; they can decrease the chances of absolutism and avoid the slippery slope toward varied forms of autocratic leadership.
Posted by: EdithTeng | February 11, 2011 1:02 PM
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Posted by: meghanerkel | February 11, 2011 12:20 AM
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