The internet and social media have transformed accessibility of information shifting the balance of power in many situations where a power gradient was predicated on knowledge asymmetry. Consumers are now better informed with more options than ever before. Citizens have more opportunity to hold governments to account (in democracies at least). And possibly most important of all, everything digital (which more or less means the records of everything including every online posting) has become permanent.
In The New Digital Age, Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt examine some of the implications of this paradigm shift including an interesting observation that opting out is not an option. They suggest that those who wish to maintain a low profile and not engage in this less private world will not, in fact, remain undetected, but will mark themselves out for attention.
In his sci-fi masterpiece, The Circle, Dave Eggers takes things to a more extreme level where ‘going transparent’ becomes the new norm, with live video feeds attached to individuals on near permanent transmit. A single digital company has a monopoly on personal data, and those opting out are hunted down by social media mob rule. The book might be in the sci-fi category, but none of this is feeling very far-fetched in 2016.
I was thinking about these concepts in the context of the Mossack Fonseca document leak from Panama. In particular, I reflected on the rights and wrongs of the scenario faced by David Cameron and its implications for public sector leadership, and indeed maybe for leaders in any context. At the time of writing, there is no evidence that Cameron has done anything illegal. And the case that he has done anything morally wrong is currently, for me at least, somewhere between thin and non-existent. However, none of that matters in the adversarial world of British politics and the court of internet-fuelled public opinion, both of which combine with the professional media to build a vertiginous moral high ground with some very shaky foundations.
To quote my colleague Amy, role modelling is where leadership earns its money. But when the bar we are setting is sainthood and the verification standard for accusations of transgression is the internet mob, then the cast of potential leaders who also happen to be able and want to do it becomes vanishingly small.
Judgement is the key ingredient missing from the current debate on Cameron. However, the world we live in places us all in ‘shades of grey’ scenarios which require judgement all the time. Would we want every decision we ever made, or every inappropriate comment we might have said in an aside, to be recorded on permanent record and/or held to the standard of sainthood?
Leaders need to role model the values they stand for, but they also need to be authentic. Boris Johnson seems to have careered through all manner of potential PR disasters without any significant loss of credibility in the eyes of the population. Cameron’s mistake may be not whatever he did or didn’t do, but his failure to stand his ground and deal with the issues head-on. Dave Eggers’ reality seems to be fast approaching, but for now at least, authenticity still commands respect.