The last presidential debate is over, the video in the archives. The facts have been checked and rechecked and debunked and debated. The analysts have drawn their conclusions and offered their prognostications about the effects. The pollsters are in the field and will, over the course of the next week or so, report to what extent and in what direction public opinion has moved, and what the outcome of the election is likely to be.
Even before the debate began, however, I had a good idea of a topic that would come up in the debate and that has huge implications for leadership. A lesson we all should learn based on what this campaign has revealed.
That lesson has to do with email. Not the specific content of the hacked emails from the DNC or John Podesta, nor the State Department emails being released by the FBI. There are serious concerns that some of these emails raise; I’m not making light of that.
But there is a general lesson in the use of email, a lesson for all of us who aspire to lead.
Once I had learned to type (in seventh grade), typing became my preferred way of writing. Only the most personal of my communications, or the most high-speed and casual, were done in cursive or print.
So it happened, from time to time, that I would be angered or frustrated by something someone I knew did. I would hammer away at the keys to vent my frustration, my key strokes leaving deep and lasting impressions on the paper. Then I would rip that page out of the rollers and . . .
At a minimum, I’d have to type up an envelope, find a stamp, and carry the metaphorically flaming missive to the mailbox. If it was internal communication, I’d still have to fold it up, stand up and walk to drop it in a box or basket somewhere.
As brief as those moments were, they often were enough for me to secure a little perspective. If that happened, I’d tuck that letter into the top drawer of my desk and leave it for the rest of the day. Assuming it didn’t turn to ash due to spontaneous combustion, I’d read it the next morning and, usually, tear it up and throw it away.
Of course, I’ve also spent most of my life communicating face-to-face or by telephone. These channels do not impose a thoughtful pause. We have to choose to create it . . . which, as the presidential debates have revealed, can be a very difficult thing to do.
Fortunately, most of our face-to-face and phone conversations are unrecorded. The words pass through the air and are gone. That is not to say that no damage is done. But the damage is done once.
Put those comments in print, and they can do damage over and over again. Put them in print where people can find them, legally or otherwise, and the damage an intemperate remark, expressed in a moment of strong emotion and less strong thought, can spread to new people and deepen the harm done to the original target and the original speaker.
As email captured a larger and larger share of our interpersonal and group communications, it invited us to make a massive and permanent record of what we said. For some purposes, like tracking requests and responses, providing dates and details of meetings, and memorializing decisions, email has been a tool for improved efficiency and effectiveness. But because it’s there, on our desktop, on our smartphone, dinging each time we get a special offer and inviting us to fire off quick responses to everything, email often becomes a standard means of communication for every task.
This includes, unfortunately, personal attacks and stage whispers to colleagues imagined to be co-conspirators in our views of a boss, a colleague, a celebrity, or a candidate.
On top of the ease of access, email encourages us to send, send, send, and do it now, now, now. We are so used to clicking buttons on the screen that we often hit “send” before we are done. No thoughtful pause there.
Leaders are human beings. Leaders sometimes get angry. Leaders sometimes take wicked delight in the struggles of rivals and foes.
When leaders memorialize these moments of human weakness, they undermine themselves and may do substantial harm to others.
Ideally, when we lead, we do so with great integrity, great devotion to the good of those we lead, and great insight.
But even if we falter, we need to retain a modicum of restraint. At worst, those hot words should go into the air. They should never go into the record.