Commentary

August 1, 2014

Analog Leadership in a Digital World

Col. David E. Blocker
6th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — In today’s military, every service member is a leader, and we all live in a “digital world.” Look around any gathering of people; most of us are online with some form of computer or electronic device the majority of time we are awake.

At home station or deployed, portable electronic devices and tablet computers are ‘necessary’ for reviewing military instructions, routine communication, and documenting mission accomplishment.

At work or home, we play our favorite music, follow sports or breaking news, chat with others, watch the latest humorous video [or another computer based training], and answer the latest email in a constant stream of information and distraction, faster than we can process.

And this is a family phenomenon – from adults to the youngest child, we’re often “online” as we travel, during family meals, or relaxing at home. In fact, studies have shown that most modern American family members under the age of 30 spend more home time each day looking at a computer, TV, or phone screen than they do talking with one another.

Like it or not, digital technology is here to stay, and navigating daily life in our world is increasingly complex and integrated.

Here’s the challenge; we are “analog” by design, designed to focus on one thing at a time, traveling in one direction in time and space, anticipating future events at the limited processing speed of a human brain. Multitasking effectively drops our IQ and requires more time and energy to complete any single task. Because analog “feels” more natural, most popular digital interfaces simulate analog devices and make things seem simple to the user. No matter how digitally connected we are, we all still share the analog interface, and need to operate and relate within both realms.

As a military commander, I am an analog leader fully immersed in the digital world. I send and reply to dozens of emails and texts daily, and my work phone is always on my person or by my side during meetings, during a run, even in bed. Every morning starts with a series of digital alarms throughout my house, and every time I pack for a trip, my cell phone charger is as essential as my toothbrush. As a military commander, I am also charged to maintain an appropriate culture of dignity, trust and respect among people from diverse cultures, generations and world views. I am honored to lead from an analog perspective, communicating with supervisors, coworkers, and subordinates using both analog and digital methods, successfully navigating through very complex military medical tasks with highly educated and capable people every day.

A quick check on your search engine of choice will find many interesting discussions on this topic from military leaders and others. In 2012, former Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy emphasized that analog skills such as face to face communication remain important even as we embrace technology and the innovations that are brought to our lives and our workplaces. General officers across two or more major commands have briefed new commanders that we must recognize and take ownership of social media; there is no such thing as separating our personal identities from our military lives. Books like “Socialnomics” by Erik Qualman identify new rules of engagement in our modern digital world and challenge us to adjust our perspectives in an increasingly global and online community.

In this brief article, I want to share five concepts of analog leadership that stand out the most to me in our increasingly digital world:

  1. Use digital media for information, not discussion. Analog leaders understand that effective communication happens best face to face, and requires feedback. “Sending” does not equal “receiving.” Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, happening with tone of voice and body language. While one way communication like texts or emails are fine for sharing general information or preparation for later discussion, topics that are followed up in person get done more completely and correctly. If more than three emails are needed, take the discussion offline; use the phone or meet face to face.
  2. What goes TDY stays online. Analog leaders understand that any foolish or heroic moment can easily be captured and shared, becoming the next social media sensation or national embarrassment, with Uniform Code of Military Justice consequences for service members. I’ve never liked the concept of “what goes TDY stays TDY;” the reality now is if something happens while TDY or deployed, you can expect the folks at home to know by breakfast.
  3. Stay positive with digital media. I believe that analog leaders know to praise in public [including online], but correct in private [keep it offline]. Just because you can post it or email it, should you? Once an email, text, or photo is online, you can’t take it back! I like the test of the “3M’s” – if you don’t want to share this information with your mother, your minister, and the media, then don’t post it or share it online! If you blog, post or email, don’t complain in the digital forum. Make a conscious choice to share positive information and images about yourself and others, and always remember Operational Security!
  4. Use the chain of command, even in the digital world. If you wouldn’t blindside your supervisor with the information in a face to face meeting with their boss, don’t send or publish outside of your chain of command without their visibility and support.
  5. Monitor and address issues in digital media quickly. Responsive honesty and transparency from our military leaders and organizations are even more important in a digital world, where information is shared and opinions are formed “real time.” A quick honest answer in response to an online question or embarrassment is preferable to a detailed report or apology days later. This requires awareness and access to popular social media and digital interfaces in our communities. Digital rules of engagement exist for military organizations using social media; Public Affairs and the Judge Advocate General are available to assist.

Remember that service members are always held to UCMJ standards, in and out of uniform, including content posted or shared online. Your digital DNA will be traced to you, so live the core values and let them be reflected in your online interactions.
I hope these insights provide food for thought as you navigate your own path as an analog leader in our digital world.




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