4 Technologies of leadership
How we practise leadership can be shaped as much by the technologies around us as by our intentional actions as autonomous people – in other words, technologies can lead. This is not quite to argue that technologies can think and feel for themselves, at least not yet anyway. But it is to argue that most thinking on leadership, and indeed most thinking in practice, tends to assume that we are independent people who rely on rational thought alone. This is a flawed assumption that overlooks how interdependent we are in reality. In fact, we are hugely dependent on the technologies we use, as well as the spaces we inhabit.
Leadership depends so much on the interaction between material objects and people. The example used by Grint (2005b) is that of the D-Day landings in World War II, which relied on a vast and complex web of technologies and techniques – weather forecasting equipment, landing craft, covert mini submarines, falsified evidence of alternative invasion plans, the knowledge and judgement of certain leaders and the bravery and intelligence of those involved on the ground (and in the air). Technologies can shape the possibilities for leadership as much as leaders and followers. In fact it could be said that leaders should not be thought of as ‘people’ at all but as person–technological hybrids (Latour, 2007). People exist in a mutually dependent relationship with their technologies.
Technologies can be very simple and mundane or they can be complex and high-tech. Let’s return momentarily to the expansive world of the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI). Recall that staff hold their meetings overlooking the cityscape. They do so while sitting on a blue sofa and chairs. This seems like a mundane detail but the living room furniture has become an important actor in the work of NZLI, a character in the play of leadership.
What does a sofa overlooking the city offer? Sitting on a sofa or comfortable chair can be relaxing, evoking feelings of being at home, opening one up to more reflective thinking. Relaxing on a sofa can also evoke images of a therapist’s couch: the experience of being asked uncomfortable questions that nevertheless push you into unexpectedly valuable thinking territory. Being simultaneously relaxed and open to critical questioning is of course just where an innovative leadership institute wants you to be. The sofa area has become so much a focus of practice that the sofa itself has started to develop a character of its own and can be spoken about as if it is a living thing with personality.
On the high-tech end of the spectrum, it is often argued that the internet, mobile technology and social media have transformed the way in which we relate to one another and work. If you look around you in a public space, you will notice that many, if not most people are buried in their phones or tablets in a way that would simply have been unthinkable 15 to 20 years ago. Social media in particular has changed the way in which people identify with and relate to communities. Communities are as likely to be stretched across continents now as to be situated in a localised area. Moreover, leadership can be thought of in terms of communities of people and technologies, comprised of a variety of roles and identities. . Perhaps most importantly, due to technologies, volunteers are beginning to have a voice and degree of participation which was previously not possible.
Activity 4 Spaces and technologies in your organisation
Spend 15 minutes thinking about the kinds of spaces and technologies that dominate where and how leadership is practised in your organisation. If you are able, take a photograph of this space and/or these technologies and post the photo in this activity's thread in the discussion forum. Spend 10 minutes telling your fellow learners a story that captures how leadership is enacted in this space and with these technologies.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of this space and these technologies of leadership? Could you do something to freshen up the space where leadership is practised?
Spend five minutes commenting on the photograph or story of two of your fellow learners.
Spaces where leadership is practised can be chosen deliberately, as can the technologies that are used in leadership. For example, in the House of Commons and House of Lords, the government benches directly face the opposition benches, so that when a minister addresses either House, she or he faces political adversaries rather than colleagues. This is a design deliberately geared towards the generation of adversarial debate and scrutiny.
Sometimes, however, spaces and technologies and uses of them can become quite habitual and stale. People become accustomed to being a certain way in a particular meeting room, surrounded by certain objects. Over time, certain memories and practices are identified with certain spaces and technologies. There is a lot to be said for freshening up where and how you interact and where you enact leadership. By changing the spaces and technologies of leadership, you also change how people relate to one another and approach one another.
Hopefully this week we have started to stretch your perceptions of leadership and what comprises leadership in practice. We will conclude this week by reflecting back on what we think has been the key practice, that of sociomaterial awareness.