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28 NOVEMBER 2014
The measure of character in the Information Age

by Mike Stopforth: Entrepreneur and investor. Sometimes writer and speaker. Exploring how we lead, and how we should lead, in an increasingly complex world.

Just over two years ago Don Packett from 21Tanks gave me the opportunity to write a page for their free Do Ideas ebook, a collection of anecdotes and philosophies on how to move from having ideas to doing ideas and a fantastic read that I highly recommend to all my clients, colleagues and friends (despite my relatively average contribution in said publication).

In that ebook Anthony Nathan, chairman of Sovereign Universe, begins his contribution with the following thought:

Reputations are made by what we have “done”, not what we’re “going to do”.

This reinforces the notion in my mind, that the gap between what you “say” and what you actually “do”, essentially determines your credibility.

I love this quote. It has become a personal mantra and I reference it often to help corporate clients understand how social media (and specifically social media marketing) has a knack of exposing their brand schizophrenia.

Hypocrisy and deceit are not new concepts. They are as old as human nature. So too is their role in our judgement of integrity and character, whether organisational or individual. We feel betrayed when a company or person claim something and then act in a way that is contradictory to that claim. Character is who you are behind closed doors.

I’m writing this post because I believe character is under threat. If I’m right, and character is indeed under threat, then the fabric of relationships is under threat. If relationships are the building blocks of society, then we have grossly underestimated the long term impact of our digitally-enmeshed personal lives.

Let me make my case.

Fifty years from now we’ll look back at the ten years spanning 2005 to 2015 and marvel at the impact of the technological advances of the period on us all. While reams have been written about the platforms themselves (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) and the commercial bubble around them, too little has been said about the human behaviours and tectonic societal shifts resulting from widespread adoption and almost addictive usage levels.

This last decade has changed many things, but none more so than our ability to portray and publish a digital façade or version of ourselves that is in many ways unrealistic or even untrue (exquisitely illustrated in this seminal blog post). As we do so, some of us are building “personal brands” and leveraging those in relationships with companies and communities. Far more interesting than all of the overt activity on social media, however, is the covert. The gap between what many of us say, and what many of us do (online), is widening dramatically. Almost every conversation we have is recorded in some digital format. That goes for good conversations and bad conversations. Healthy conversations and unhealthy conversations. Open conversations and those we’d prefer to hide.

The question I’d want to challenge you with is this: What do you delete? What do you censor? And, is it possible that what you delete and censor is the measure of your character? Surely, if you have nothing to delete, you have nothing to hide.

Before I sound like a sanctimonious twat, this is as much a confession as an observation. It is immeasurably easier and cheaper to cultivate deep emotional connections with anyone in the world over platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and others than ever before. What we do with that ability – how we handle ourselves with all that power – is a great measure of who we are. I have abused that privilege before and paid dearly for it. What we need to be conscious of is that we are creating connections with digital projections – the aforementioned social façade.

There is something undeniably chemical and arguably addictive about the shallow validation that comes from a Facebook like, a retweet, an Instagram “heart” or that tell-tale buzz as your phone vibrates with a WhatsApp message. This paper examines the substance of smartphone addiction in more detail and is a very interesting long read if you have the time and inclination.

Could it be that we are unconsciously reshaping relationship in exchange for cheap validation as we discover and integrate with new technologies? Consider the connections, conversations and emotions you experience on the back of your day-to-day engagement with these social platforms. How different would your life be, or would you be, without them?

Knowing full well that I am the kind of person who enjoys this reality, I want to be the kind of man who never has to delete anything. Who never has to worry about that email I sent to my tax man about that loophole getting published or passed on somewhere (that was a hypothetical example :)). Who never has to delete a WhatsApp message. Who never has to delete the updates or tweets I publish. Because if I do, I’m lying to someone. More importantly, if I do, I’m lying to myself. Which is a great barometer for weak character. Nobody wants that.

If the measure of character in this Information Age is what you feel you need to delete and censor, be the kind of person that doesn’t have to.

Cerebra is an integrated strategic communication agency that builds, engages and activates communities around brands. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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