Real Life Leading #8: A Luddite in a Tech World

Real Life Leading #8:

A Luddite in a Tech World:  Learning as an Act of Humility

     Upon taking up his newly-created post at the University of Cambridge, the beloved author and professor C.S. Lewis once referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” a holdover from an earlier intellectual age that has long since gone out of fashion. He was a medievalist, trying to teach and influence an increasingly modern (and postmodern) world. I am no C.S. Lewis, so I will resist referring to myself as a dinosaur; I also am not writing here about intellectual or educational philosophy, but about leadership. As such, I am not so much a dinosaur as I am a Luddite in a tech world.

A Luddite is defined as someone who actively opposes more industrialization or new technology, and if you were to ask any of my students (especially in today’s smart-phone generation), they could tell you stories of the many times I have quite willingly hopped on my intellectual soapbox about the dangers of smart-phones, their negative effects on learning, etc. However that may be, I also am forced to acknowledge that I have tremendously benefited from technology, and therefore to oppose it on principle would be an act not of mere selfishness but of true pride.

Pride has been defined in many ways, and I want to begin by saying that not all ‘pride’ is a bad thing. Again, referencing C.S. Lewis, he wrote (my paraphrase here) that pride in one’s regiment or in one’s family, or in anything else that focuses outward, is not a bad thing, especially if that causes a person to work harder or serve others in pursuit of improving the regiment, family, etc. No, the dangerous type of pride is what we often think of as competitiveness, that is, pride that is constantly weighing ourselves against others. This pride is dangerous specifically because it is so self-centered, self-focused, and self-serving.

The danger of competitive pride has been brought home to me in many different ways in my leadership, especially in my role as a coach. My pride has caused me to yell at players who didn’t deserve it (yes, I do believe that sometimes a louder-than-usual voice is necessary, if only because of the sheer size and distances of a soccer field), take losses personally (as if by losing my team somehow let me down, therefore reflecting poorly on me as a person), and to set a poor example to my players, the fans, and even my children who have attended many of the games I have coached.

In regards to leadership, the dangers of pride are tremendous: pride will cause leaders to cut corners in the pursuit of ‘victory’ or ‘success,’ however those may be defined in that role. Pride will often cause leaders to define success in a way that is ultimately about themselves rather than about the organization they are leading. And just a quick glance at the news will reveal that pride will also lead to much worse problems, as shown by many of our national political leaders, pro athletes, or other celebrities. And the only solution is humility.

Humility is perhaps the most misunderstood descriptor in the English language. Humility, simply defined, is focusing on others instead of on oneself. It is thinking of oneself less often. And when a leader learns how to do this consistently, many of the dangers of pride can be averted.

So, back to me being a Luddite: I willingly admit that I am often opposed to new technology simply because it is new and I don’t understand it. However, because of my pride, I also am opposed to it because I don’t want to be bothered with having to learn it, and because it is so much easier for people younger than me to grasp. This is brought home to me every time a student references a new app, or social media platform, or even popular video game about which I have no idea.

When I was a kid, the most popular gaming platform was the original Nintendo, the 8-bit NES with Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt. I was never great at it, but I got pretty good. And then the Super Nintendo came out, and the controllers had more buttons, and, try though I might, I never could get good with that many buttons. As a result, I was strongly opposed to the system, and I have been opposed to every system that has come out since. In college, when my dorm mates were playing in N64s or GameCubes or other systems, I would mostly watch, or I would play and get destroyed, and both of those things wounded my pride.

After college, when texting was first growing in popularity, I refused to even try to learn how to do it, just on principle. As smart-phones have become more popular, I did the same thing, refusing to buy a smart-phone until less than two years ago. Sure, I endured much ribbing about my Luddite-tendencies, but I believed I had the moral high ground…..

Until I realized that the only reason I was opposed to all of those things was pride and laziness. I didn’t want to admit that I would need help learning new technology, because that would make me seem less intelligent than I like to think I am. I didn’t want to admit that, though there are dangers, perhaps the technology itself isn’t the problem (though I will always believe that the technology enables people to make bad decisions more easily, as I have seen in my own life). I certainly didn’t want to give up my pride-based moral high ground.

And then I remembered humility. I was reminded of the many times I have had to ask for help because I could not, on my own, do what needed to be done. Without help from others, I could not fulfill my responsibilities. I remembered that, even without smart-phone technology, I had made more mistakes (with bigger consequences) than I had thought myself capable of.

See, that’s the thing about pride, especially prideful leadership: when we are focused on ourselves, we don’t see the dangers that are already right in front of us, because we are too busy being Narcissus, falling in love with our own reflections. Ever tried driving a car while only looking at your reflection in the rear view mirror? You can’t help but crash sooner or later, no matter how skillful and experienced a driver you are.

When leaders begin focusing on themselves, it affects every area of leadership: it affects the team or group you are leading, it affects your style of leadership, it affects your relationships, and it affects your outcome. You may still experience some ‘successes,’ but these are only delaying the inevitable. Remember all the stories and myths of heroes who brought about their own downfall due to their hubris, their pride, and their self-focus. And commit to not being that type of leader.

As leaders we must focus on others, and we must be willing to go out of our way to continue to learn, even if, as in my case, learning involves asking people younger than us (as I have had to ask my teenage daughter) to teach us about technology with which we are uncomfortable. Because every conscious act of learning is also an act of humility.

Let me say that again: every conscious act of learning is an act of humility. When we consciously set about learning something, we are acknowledging a couple of important things: 1) we don’t already know everything we need to know, and thus 2) we have to seek out that knowledge from a source that does already know what we need to know. We are placing ourselves in someone else’s hands, trusting that they will guide us well and faithfully to the knowledge that we need at that time.  

Lastly, because learning is an act of placing ourselves in another’s hands, it is also imperative that we seek out knowledge in a purposeful way, from sources that will contribute to our overall goals as a leader. That is, we must carefully choose what we learn and where we learn it. The old adage, “You learn something new every day,” remains true. So then the last important question you need to ask yourself is: as a leader, what are you choosing to learn, and where is this new knowledge coming from? For me, the Luddite, this often means I’m asking someone to teach me more about new technology, about social media, about history, about leadership, about coaching. I don’t know everything there is to know about anything. And if you’re at all like me, you can also benefit from learning from someone who knows more. So, let us be humble enough to acknowledge what we don’t know and also confident enough to ask for help from those who do.

Weekly Takeaway: In your area of leadership, what have you been hesitant to learn? Choose this week to go and find more information, and then share it with your team or group.