Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.
We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.
We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.
This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.
In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?
We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.
The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.
For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?
How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?
There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.
The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.
Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.
We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.
And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.
Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.
Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.
This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.
Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.
Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.
Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.