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Are We Becoming Pancake Leaders?

Posted Sep 22 2008 5:37pm

"Is Google making us stupid?" That's the provocative question Nicholas Carr asks in his article by that title in the July/August 2008 of The Atlantic.com. Lisa Shannon, our senior editor at Pfeiffer, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, referred me to this piece, and it's a must-read for anyone even the least bit concerned about what the affect that the World Wide Web might be having on our capacity to think.

Carr writes, "Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable feeling that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory." And it's not been for the better. That someone, or something, is the Web. Carr is not alone in his feelings. University of Michigan professor and pathologist Bruce Friedman, for example, comments that "I have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print." Maryanne Wolf, developmental psychologist at Tufts University, observers that "We are not only what we read. We are how we read." Reading a book has a different effect on us than reading a blog. A personal history of reading books will wire our brains differently than one of reading only blogs.

The problem is that we may be reading more on the Web than we did in print, but we are really only skimming the surface. We land on a page, read a bit, and then move on. We don't dive as deep. We don't reflect. In an evocative metaphor about the eventual impact of our point-and-click habits, playwright Richard Foreman wonders if we are all becoming "'pancake people' — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button."

So, what's this got to do with leadership? Two thoughts: First, our Google culture is a reflection of the reality that leaders confront every day. A reality full of constant interruption. A reality of jumping from one thing to another, one person to another. "We don’t have work days – we have work minutes that last all day," observes UC Irvine computer science professor Gloria Mark. She and her team shadowed information workers – managers are included in this group – and timed every event. What they found is that the "average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted or before switching was … three minutes and five seconds, on average." (That does not include formal meetings where people are captive, though having attended thousands of meetings in my life, I would guess the attention-interruption ratio is about the same.)

The life of a leader is not one where we attend to any one thing for very long. It's just the nature of our work. Leaders have to learn how to influence others in brief moments. They just don't have people's attention for very long. Our Googling habits are just another indication of how "we work minutes that last all day."

But my second reaction is one of great concern. That's because the one thing that differentiates leaders from other credible people is being forward-looking. It's a leadership prerequisite. The capacity to envision an uplifting and ennobling future and enlist others in a shared vision — what we refer to as Inspire a Shared Vision — is the practice that sets leaders apart. If leaders can't do that, they aren't going to be able to take people to places they've never been before. Well, envisioning the future takes reflection and deep thought, and that requires time and attention. There's just no way we can imagine an exciting and meaningful future in three minutes and five seconds. There's just no way we can find a common purpose while constantly being interrupted. There's just no way we can spread ourselves wide and thin like a pancake and expect to create innovative new products and services and build a world-class organization. There are no three-minute visions.

Leaders who read more deeply, and read more broadly, studies show, are better able to look farther ahead than those who read narrowly and thinly. The Internet can certainly help us in our search for breadth, but it apparently isn't aiding us with depth or attention. Full disclosure requires that I tell you I did a lot of Googling for this blog….and I Google daily. I'm not a Luddite, and neither is Nicholas Carr. It's just that informing ourselves about the future will require us to do a lot less Googling and a lot more thinking. So, pack a few books and journals, grab that pen and paper, leave your Internet connection at home, and head for the beach, the mountains, or the lake. Take your mind for a walk and wander without a watch. The interruptions will return soon enough.

Posted by Jim Kouzes

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