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Leadership: it just ain’t that simple

It’s a complicated time to consider the matter of leadership.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

It’s a complicated time to consider the matter of leadership.

The traditional locus of institutional leadership in our western democracies is crumbling under the weight of the human condition (our capacity for good and evil ) multiplied by the technology we deploy to live.

It is aggravated by the agglomeration of enormous influence by global corporations who dominate, lead and define categories of life (say health care, food, war, energy, media, and government policy).

All of this is leavened with the impossibility of having the time to think in an instantaneous digital world — and that’s before we get to the outsourcing of parenting to peers on Facebook or Twitter.

The characteristics of leadership are interesting, of course, and have not disappeared, but we live in a world where brand management (both personal and corporate) is more ubiquitous than moral courage.

OK, not what you were expecting in a column about leadership, but to talk about leadership without context is like believing in the tooth fairy at the age of 65.

I’m sure we can all agree more or less that a leader has empathy, has demonstrated competency, is unselfish, is often courageous, communicates effectively, walks the talk, listens, tells the truth, has knowledge, takes responsibility, doesn’t hide and generally lifts us up and helps us be our best selves, whether that is coaching a hockey team or leading a country.

The question for me is not just leadership, but what is leading us. If we look at what fills our days, more and more it is products and brands driven by innovation, convenience, marketing, price and habit. Making money drives everything. This was not always the case.

Our health care system — notwithstanding its many attributes — has become a drug emporium; our food system is designed for obesity and un-health; our energy addictions threaten our survival; our spiritual world is in disarray (not new of course). Media has gone from something you would do at your leisure, and maybe even trust, to something you wear.

Most people cannot function without their phone, or tablet or PC, which creates much of their reality.

In this world, Coca Cola has 72 million likes and Starbucks retweets your content; Chevy commissions its own country song, which reflects how they want you to feel about their Silverado truck (although there is no mention of it in the song); and Forbes Magazine has a new news section called Brand Voice, which is advertiser stories written as news on their website.

The problem with leadership today is that you have to become a brand to have resonance (say at least 500 friends) and in doing so, you have already capitulated to the assumption this is a normal way to be.

So the question of leadership and morality and community and family and civility in this digital world seems to me to be tied to scale. It is almost impossible to lead in a world where people are busy friending, tweeting, blogging, gaming and sexting around the clock.

It is hard to get anyone’s attention beyond a “ha ha.”

To lead you need a project. If you lead well, more leaders will find their feet. To do more is to overthink it.

Once you pick a worthy project, you can then — ever so gingerly — return to the digisphere where necessary and do battle in the aforementioned silos that are going to kill us if we don’t detach and defang them.

So the project is to take back the conversation and the energy from the omnipresent social media construct that is about engagement designed to create transactions, and redeploy this vitality to better living.

A tall order. It will take leadership.