The BlackBerry Blackout and the Bigger Picture, part II

The BlackBerry Blackout and the Bigger Picture, part II

This week, my reflection continues about the role of smart phones, email, and reflection in our daily lives.

In a February 2002 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Beware the Busy Manager”, Heike Burch and Sumantra Ghoshal argue that failure to spend reflective time is one of the modern manager’s major shortcomings.

I could not agree more.

In fact, my coaching practice, together with my reading and research, has led me to the firm conviction that reflection is a critical and necessary element of a leader’s development.  Effective leaders spend significant amounts of time reflecting, and through this reflection they revise their worldviews and their own life stories. They are constantly examining and searching, constantly learning about themselves and their worlds, and constantly processing their own life experience.

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, for example, regularly takes time to reflect on how he sees the world and his own place in it, as well as his company’s role.  In his view, effective leaders are characterized by an inherent curiosity about the world around them, and they spend a significant portion of their time trying to learn and understand things. Despite one of the corporate world’s most demanding schedules, Immelt strives to spend much of his time—up to 20% of it—reading and reflecting.

And, reflection is not only for high-profile CEOs.  In my daily life, both professional and personal, I have found that the most interesting people and the most effective leaders are those who engage in an ongoing process of personal reflection.  That is how they get to be interesting and effective.

My friend and colleague Robert Derisbourg, who has enjoyed an extraordinary five-decade career leading diverse organizations on three continents, is one of the most insightful people I know about business, managing human beings, passion and generosity.  Robert says that he has always spent significant amounts of his time in reflection, since it is only through thinking deeply about things that one can “develop a sense of systems thinking and an ability to deal with complexity”, which are two keys to success for the modern manager.

Robert happens to use a BlackBerry, and even uses it a lot, but he is also quite capable of putting it aside for long periods of time, to contemplate the deeper meaning of life, management and influence.  Thus, it was no surprise to me to see that he was quite unruffled by the whole BlackBerry Blackout incident.

People such as Robert understand the need to be connected but also the importance of spending significant chunks of time disconnected.  It is only in the moments when we disconnect that we can consider the deeper issues of our careers, or of our very existence: Who am I, where am I going, what do I stand for, and what influence would I like to have in my world?

If, as Burch and Ghoshal contend, the failure to spend reflective time is one of the major failings of the modern manager, it all makes me wonder if our smart devices are not part of a growing problem.

As data proliferates in our lives, as we increasingly live in a world of speed, urgency and detail, as we spend so much of our time dealing with email and SMS messages, will we have increasingly less time and inclination to search for deeper meaning?

Learning to lead, to become a person who makes a difference to those around us, is a process that begins with introspection.  Reflection and self-knowledge form the base from which anyone can influence and inspire others, at any point in a career and at any level of an organization.  Everyone, regardless of age, experience, or position in an organization, would do well to step back periodically, back from daily preoccupations and the tyranny of urgency and short-term results, to spend some time just thinking about things.

Of course, it is not the smart phone that prevents us from reflecting.  The problem is not in the device itself, but rather in how we interact with it.

And, therein lies my concern.  When I observe the way many people use their BlackBerries and other smart phones, I cannot help but feel that they are getting pulled away from the realm of reflection, and finding themselves ever more trapped in a world of smaller thinking.

1 Comment

  1. People who do get to the top are those who learn to be reflective and purposeful 11 years ago

    […] the HBR article again brought to mind Lucy Kellaway’s observation during the BlackBerry Blackout (see my post from November 4), an observation that is worth repeating here: If you are the sort of person endlessly looking at […]

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