As I have been writing for the past few weeks, the BlackBerry Blackout has caused me to reflect even more deeply than before about how we spend our time in today’s wired world. In addition, the past weeks provided numerous opportunities to talk with business school students about how they use their smart phones.
Many of these young people today appear to be “power users” of the Iphone and BlackBerry. They spend much of their time emailing and texting, communicating as much as possible in real time. After experiencing the BlackBerry Blackout and re-reading the Harvard Business Review article “Beware the Busy Manager”, I wondered if their attachment to these devices is turning them, at a young age, into a generation of distracted or disengaged managers.
These graduate students often tell me that they have little time to think about the big questions of life. They are busy all the time, doing their class work, answering their emails, and updating their social media pages. As do the distracted managers or procrastinators described in the HBR article, they fill their lives with the small tasks that keep them constantly active, while perhaps avoiding issues that may be more important.
My recent discussions with students cause me to wonder about how we teach and learn about business. In particular, how much of the student’s time is spent purposefully and what are we teaching young people about spending the reflective time that will help them become effective managers? If studies are telling us that those who emerge as leaders in organizations tend to be people who learn to be reflective and purposeful, should we not be helping our students master such traits and mindsets?
I am deeply concerned about all of this because my twenty-five years of running and observing organizations have taught me that we desperately need conceptual thinkers, people who understand not only how to solve problems but also how to understand a broader context, to see and feel how the parts of a complex structure work together.
Should we not be making more of a place in our schools for systems approaches, for conceptual thinking, and for developing the reflective mindset that will help students progress in their careers? If the most successful leaders at all levels of organizations are reflective, conceptual thinkers, why do we not teach and emphasize these attributes more than we do?
To me, the year or two that one spends in a graduate program such as an MBA should be far more than a time of academic learning. It should be one of the best moments in life to stand back and take stock of one’s purpose, to consider one’s past, and to project oneself toward a meaningful future. It is a time to do some deep reflection on life’s important questions of identity: who am I, what are my core beliefs and values, and what influence would I like to have in my world?
It is a time to write a journal, to explore one’s self, to contemplate life’s big questions. It is a time to be reflective, and to search for deeper purpose and meaning.
If, as Burch and Ghoshal contend in their HBR article, the failure to spend reflective time is one of the major failings of the modern manager, perhaps we should welcome an occasional blackout of our handheld devices. When our BlackBerries stop working, would it not be a good time to take a deep breath, to step back and simply think about thinking again?