Lorenz on Leadership - Technological change

General Stephen R. Lorenz is the Air Education and Training Command commander.

General Stephen R. Lorenz is the Air Education and Training Command commander.

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- I am a digital immigrant. You see, in the summer of 1972, as a senior at the Air Force Academy, I spent $125 on a small "personal computer." At roughly $650 in today's dollars, the small unit was able to do four things: add, subtract, multiply and divide. It was a cutting edge ... calculator. Although we were only permitted to use it while checking our work, it was, essentially, my introduction to the world of computing.

Today, we cannot accomplish our mission without technology and computing. Unlike me, those entering the Air Force today are digital natives. These natives don't remember a time when green military ID cards rarely left your wallet, the Military Personnel Flight wasn't "virtual" and black berries were just a seasonal fruit. This got me wondering. Has our leadership style adapted to take full advantage of the technology through the years? Has technology improved a leader's ability to make a difference?

Let's start by looking at how technology has changed the workplace. Beyond the most noticeable and tangible aspects, like e-mail, PowerPoint and cell phones, I contend that technology has transformed the workplace in three main areas: collaboration, automation and personal accessibility.

Collaboration includes our ability to network, collect and share information. Getting the right information to the right people when they need it isn't always as easy as it sounds. After all, accurate information is a key element in making objective decisions and objectivity is what keeps our organizations headed in the best direction. Today's challenge, however, is managing the sheer volume of available information. Technological advancements will only make this challenge greater in years to come.

By automation, I'm talking about technology's impact on the tasks we do each and every day. Historically, automation has been one of the enablers for doing "more with less." Our most expensive asset is our people. Technology gives us the ability to energize certain efficiencies by replacing manpower with technology. Maintaining the balance of technology and manpower will only continue to be a daily leadership challenge.

Lastly, accessibility applies to our ability to contact anyone, anywhere, anytime through voice and data communication. There are two key aspects of accessibility: how a leader makes themselves available to others and how you, as a leader, take advantage of the availability of others. It is important that commanders, while making themselves available at all hours of the day, don't foster an environment where subordinates are afraid to get decisions from anywhere but the top. At the same time, leaders must guard against exploiting the availability of others, especially subordinates. Such exploitation will only reinforce to subordinates that decisions can only come from the top.

Accessibility has also changed how we make ourselves available to others. Many commanders like to say that they have an "open door policy." Don't fool yourself into thinking that issues will always walk through the open door. Leaders still need to escape the electronic accessibility, namely e-mail, and seek human interaction. A new Airman in the squadron isn't going to raise a concern by walking into a commander's office, but might if the commander is able to interact in their work environment. Leadership by walking around will always be a positive leadership principle.

I like to think that there are three kinds of people when dealing with technology: pessimists, optimists and realists. The technology pessimists are those people who resist any change due to improved technologies. Technology optimists jump at the earliest opportunity to implement any technological advancement. The last category, the technology realist, makes up the lion share of us all. The realist accepts that change is necessary and works to integrate improvements, but doesn't continually search for and implement emerging technology.

Our organizations need all three technology types in order to run smoothly. It is incumbent upon each of us to understand what kind of technologist we, and those whom we work around, are. This is simply another medium where one size won't fit all. The leader must adapt their style depending on who they deal with and the nature of the task to be performed. The pessimist might not "hear" the things communicated electronically. By the same token, resist the temptation to send all correspondence electronically to the optimist, even though their response might be back within seconds. Always push for the personal touch and realize that your approach will be different for each person.

In essence, leadership is the challenge of inspiring the people in an organization on a goal-oriented journey. Technology enables that journey and we, as leaders, must successfully manage both the benefits and detriments of that evolution. Ultimately, the leader is still responsible for themselves, their people and the results of their units. It's how they can make a difference in both the lives of their people and in the unit's mission. It's one thing technology will never change.