Social media destroying the next generation of inspirational leaders?

By Dr. Guy Bunker. 

While at NATO’s NIAS2013 conference there were lots of great questions after my session, however one was particularly philosophical. Is social media (and the cloud) going to ruin the chances of our next generation of leaders, and particularly the inspirational ones?

At first thought it appears like a strange question, of course it doesn’t. Most CEOs, politicians and even the Pope use social media to put across their thoughts and use it to connect to people. So, how can it possibly do damage? Well, the discussion centered around the fact that most CEOs etc are ‘old’, they didn’t grow up in times of social media – and being daft about it. Their behaviour wasn’t caught on camera or tweeted about, or posted by a ‘friend’ on Facebook. So, while most have put their hand up and said ‘Yes… I did that’ when found out, they have already achieved their position, but what about the next generation?

All too often the truly inspirational leaders have somewhat of a colourful past – as most of us do. There are perhaps things, that with hindsight, you wouldn’t repeat as they were somewhat embarrassing. However, with the Internet these things can be more readily found and come back and bite the individual all too easily. In an era where HR departments now check the Internet as part of the selection process, those individuals who look like they may stray from the norm will probably be weeded out all too quickly. Leaving the future leaders being the ones who don’t take risks, or think outside the box – if the ‘proof’ can be found online.

A recent example in the UK was Paris Brown, who was selected with great fanfare as the first youth police and crime commissioner but who had to resign before she had even started because of some comment she had made several years earlier on her Twitter account. In the US there have been several accounts of similar actions having occurred – the online presence has stifled personal opportunity.

So, should we be worried? Given that all the ‘instant destruction’ messaging apps turn out not to be ‘instant destruction’ (as there are apps and services which record the message for posterity, forever) there is no place to hide online… which is good, especially when it comes to cyber-bullying, but what about the future leaders?

We always talk about self-imposed restraint and understanding consequences around posting things online, but is there more that is needed? Should there be time-limits that employers and the media can look back and take into account (as there are with some criminal records)? Social media is here, and most people, especially teenagers and young adults, now use it, even for those who are very careful about what they post, they have friends who could reference them or post a picture… which ultimately means that individuals will never reach their potential.

As with other discussions at the conference, it was very thought-provoking… and while no conclusions were met, not least because the web is global, it did raise a concern I hadn’t thought about before. So while there isn’t an answer, remember…

The Internet never forgets.