You Can’t Lead Through Text Messages

Posted 12.19.2011

Last Thursday night, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on leadership at a celebratory dinner for Eagle Scouts past and present.  The panelists were all accomplished people and had a lot of interesting reflections and insights to share.

One comment from the dinner that I’ve kept thinking about came from retired Rear Admiral John Butler who’s now an executive with Lockheed Martin. The last question I asked the panel was, “What do you think has changed in the practice of leadership over the past 10 years? What changes do you predict in how leadership will be practiced in the next ten years?”

Looking back at the past ten years, Butler has noticed the emergence of what he calls a “kinder, gentler” approach to leadership. His recollection of the 1980’s and 90’s was that it wasn’t uncommon for leadership to be about how loud you could yell and how close you could get to somebody’s face while you were doing it. He’s noticed that the practice of leadership has become much more collaborative over the past ten years and believes that’s a good thing. (See Tom Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times for a similar point of view.)

Looking ahead to the next ten years, Butler is concerned about a lack of human connection in the practice of leadership. While text messaging is the preferred form of communication for millennials (replacing the email that Gen X and Baby Boomers have preferred), it’s not a great leadership tool. As Butler said, you’re not going to convince a young soldier to lead a dangerous assault through a text message. Or, for that matter, you’re not going to get a team fired up and committed to do something challenging at work through a text either. Leadership in both situations requires voice if not face. To do difficult things, followers need to hear and, preferably, see the credibility and commitment that their leader is bringing to the table.

If I were to sum up the Admiral’s points on his look back and look ahead about leadership, the common denominator is connection.  The practice of leadership is evolving from the top down, do it because I tell you to do it model to an approach that engages followers (collaborators may be a better word) mentally and emotionally. You can’t do that through a text message.

What about you? What do you think has changed about leadership in the last 10 years? What do you predict about the practice of leadership in the next 10 years?