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Digital Leadership in a Digital Age: The Dark Side

By: Capt. Christopher “Matcha” Little

Imagine you find yourself in an austere wartime environment, newly appointed to lead a Joint Task Force (JTF). The bad guys look like civilians. You have never fought a war quite like this one, a decentralized one with no clear endstate. These are the conditions Army General Stan McChrystal faced when he took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Middle East. The enemy was a formidable, decentralized force able to reassemble themselves and make decisions when their leaders were not able to make real-time decisions for them.

General McChrystal could not be present at every point in a campaign that needed rapid decision making. Throughout his command of the JTF, he used Virtual Teleconference (VTC), email, and the telephone to keep his leadership network connected. An easy thing to do is “lead from the desk,” a trap many leaders fall into. An effective leader needs to be seen, not just heard; walk the halls, know people’s names, and more importantly, listen. A leader is in the people business, whether they like it or not. This is something that General McChrystal got right.

It would be an easy trap for him to just sit up in his JTF HQs and lead from his ivory tower through various channels of digital communication technology. The easy thing to do, which many leaders do, is shoot an email out or phone call and expect results. While this leaves a paper trail and checks a box, it lacks a personable approach. Subordinate leaders need to feel part of the common goal. The dark side of digital leadership is to lead by email, which is one of the least effective tools of leadership. A slightly better options is to pick up the phone and call someone. Even better would be to use the VTC. The best and most effective leadership tool is to give someone your time, attention, and have a face-to-face interaction.

General McChrystal didn’t have the luxury of daily face-to-face interactions because of the breadth of his command. But, he was able to use the VTC effectively. He used it to have others communicate to him. In reality, McChrystal made few decisions. His staff and the officers and NCOs in the field made the critical decisions on a day-to-day basis. He empowered those below him to make effective decisions and used the VTC to let others brief him on their progress. How would a centralized United States Department of Defense top-down command approach work for fighting a decentralized command structure? This type of war is something we were not used to, but technology allowed General McChrystal to empower teams of people to make timely decisions. These decisions did not need to flow up and down the chain of command. History has proven this to be a slow, sluggish, and less effective way to lead.

In his book, Team of Teams, General McChrystal talked about ways to make technology work for him, not against him. Leaders often have a myriad of technology at their disposal, but leaders often rely too heavily on technology or use it ineffectively. The cubicle is not often considered technology, but it (debatably) “modernized” the office. Or did it? General McChrystal used an open office concept because transparency was a key aspect of his organizational leadership technique. If he took a phone call, he would put in on speakerphone for others to hear. Words get lost in translation through an email, phone, or word of mouth. McChrystal knew the outcome of these decisions were often the lives of his operators. He believed that an open floor concept would enable others to leverage the information flow in his HQ. This meant breaking down walls, both literally and figuratively. There was no amount of technology that helped flatten the organization more than tearing down walls.

Often times, we think to be a good leader, we need to rely on technology to help us achieve a utopian command and control center with eyes and ears everywhere. In reality, this will never be the case. As a leader, we need to use technology, but not solely rely on it. The dark side of technology means using it as your only effective leadership tool. Technology will never be able to replace giving someone your time, listening to them, and being present in the moment.

A technique I use on a day to day basis is thanking people for their time. Technology cannot give someone their time, only a person can do that. Consider taking the time to thank someone at the end of every phone call, email, VTC, or in-person interaction. People want to feel like they are worth something and the most important thing that a leader can give is their time. So, like General McChrystal, use your time effectively. Empower others to make decisions and you will be amazed by what they accomplish when they feel like their time and efforts are appreciated.


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