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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Mickey Edwards
Political leader

Mickey Edwards

Former U.S. Congressman, Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the Institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.

The pros and cons of moving rapidly

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 leadership question in regard to what's happening in Egypt has two separate components. First, what has been the effect of modern technology on the ability of citizens to mobilize for social or governmental change? Second, what does this new, fast-moving dynamic mean for those who must respond from the outside to those developments?

In the former, it has long been true that technological advancement enhances the ability of citizens to move rapidly to advance a cause. Smoke signals, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio and, more recently, television and the computer have all greatly increased the ability of activists to spread a message and mobilize supporters. Anybody who wishes to have real impact in changing the social dynamic today has to master, or recruit people who have mastered, the newer social media--Facebook, YouTube, Twitter--just as earlier leaders had to seize control of radio stations.

The problem is different, however, for outside leaders. Whereas it is necessary for the mobilizers to move quickly, it is equally necessary for outside leaders to resist the temptation to respond as quickly. True leadership requires a combination of both passion (to sustain effort) and dispassion (to think clearly and objectively about alternatives). In the current circumstance, President Obama has created problems by speaking too soon and without sufficient reflection: He now has embraced, properly, the cause of orderly transition, something made possible by President Mubarak's public commitment not to run again and to withdraw the prospect of his son, Gamal, running to succeed him. Private communication with Mubarak helped lead to this desirable outcome. But by rushing to speak to the developments, and telling
Egyptian demonstrators that the United States did not think that commitment was sufficient, that Mubarak had to leave "now", Obama helped fuel days more of chaos and conflict.

Leadership requires knowing when it is essential to speak and, just as importantly, when it is necessary to not speak. Modern technology--fast-moving events and widespread reporting--create a perception that one must jump in quickly, but a wise leader will resist that temptation and make sure he or she has thought through the ramifications and alternatives, not permitting technology to supersede deliberative decisionmaking.

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By Mickey Edwards

 |  February 7, 2011; 3:42 PM ET
Category:  Pop culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What an excellent question! While politics can be a bit different than business, there are some similarities worth noting. When it comes to leading in service, foresight and thought matter. As this video (http://www.upyourservice.com/video-theater/what-is-technologys-role-in-providing-superior-service) points out, technology can only take a leader, company or movement only so far.

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | February 13, 2011 9:45 PM
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While a leader ought to avoid making impulsive, sweeping statements in the face of political and social unrest, the value of a timely response and shrewd action must not be understated. The rise of the internet has resulted in a dynamism that serves to expedite social and political movements. It acts as a catalyst to stimulate collective action among a common cause. In decentralizing the monopoly on information held by the few, the internet empowers the greater society. This shift in power relations demands leader flexibility. It requires expeditious action rather than stagnation. While a leader must be prudent in addressing a discontented populace and avoid whimsical, erroneous statements, she must also avoid inaction. For as detrimental as impulsive action can be, a lack of action can be equally harmful. In the of the internet, such inaction is lethal.

Posted by: colleenfugate | February 11, 2011 10:55 AM
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The social media of today means that we can get millions of opinions in a matter of minutes. This upwelling of information about the people's feelings is unprecedented in both its scale and its rapidity. This is an amazing opportunity for national leaders of democracies. However, this tempts leaders to try to make instant adjustments to instant demands. It is the leader's job to gather more information and be more informed than the general populace, to make the best decision possible. Snap decisions to appease the fickle masses does not stand up to this level of responsibility. It is merely the will of a digital mob. That is not the purpose of leaders. The ability to learn so much about one's followers is a great boon to leaders, but they must remember that it is their duty to make the right decision, not necessarily the popular one. That is why they were chosen.

Posted by: alexdobranich | February 7, 2011 8:55 PM
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