John Maxwell: The Limits of Technology

UPDATED: June 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: June 13, 2012

I’m the least technical person I know. You put nearly anything mechanical or electronic in front of me, and I don’t have a clue. I’m not anti-technology. I just don’t naturally think in technical terms. Unlike many of my childhood friends, I didn’t have a great love of cars or gadgets. And I didn’t develop one as I grew up.

While I haven’t given up my legal pad, I finally moved into the 21st century. I have an iPhone and an iPad—great ways to keep pictures of my grandchildren with me. My son Joel, a technical whiz, helps me with those devices. I also have a blog ( and a Twitter account (@JohnCMaxwell). My social media manager helps me with those.

I’m a pragmatist. I’m in favor of technology, as long as it serves me (by saving time and effort) and I don’t serve it. That same standard may work for you, too—with notable exceptions such as the three I describe here.

1. Never use technology as a substitute for leadership.

Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, the buzzword in business was management. People who wanted to succeed were encouraged to get organized and bring order to their businesses. That advice helped many take a giant step forward by promoting effectiveness and cutting costs. It was a good but very limited thing.

I say that because management is based on systems and procedures. It provides guidelines and rules. It’s fantastic for building machines and organizing information.

But it’s not good for dealing with people. It’s too impersonal. It’s too bureaucratic. That’s why people shifted their attention to leadership about three decades ago.

Businesses are made up of people and serve people. The bigger the business, the greater the number of people and the more complex the relationships. With good leadership, people can be inspired, directed and developed to succeed. Everything rises and falls on leadership.

Leadership is personal and relational. If you’re a longtime reader of SUCCESS, then you are probably familiar with my book The 5 Levels of Leadership, which illustrates that permission is an important early leadership step. Position is the first level in the leadership process; the second is permission, which is developing influence based on relationships.

That requires a personal touch. And this is where my caution about technology comes in. The more you rely on technology in your personal interactions, the less personal and less effective they become.

When people take on a new leadership role, the first thing they often want to do is communicate their vision for the organization, department or team. How do many leaders do that? By sending an email. If they’re a bit more sophisticated, then they hold a meeting where they do all the talking. But as George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” How will you know what people heard when the communication is one-way?

What do people want from a new leader? First, they want to know that the leader cares about them. Second, they want to know if they can trust that leader. Third, they want to be heard. Author Michael P. Nichols says, “Hearing someone is an expression of caring enough to listen.” People want to be given a chance to voice their frustrations and share their ground-level observations and experiences about what’s working and what isn’t. Those things are best accomplished face to face. It’s even better if they can be done one on one.

Once you’ve established a connection by listening to people, serving their interests and building trust, then you can communicate information in less personal ways. But never let that substitute for interaction with your people—no matter how long you’ve known them or how well you work with them.

Because I live in a different state from most of my team, I see them much less than I’d like. For that reason I go out of my way to connect with them whenever I can. If the team is together for an event, I try to have dinner with them. I schedule a visit to the office. I make phone calls to stay in touch. I take people with me when I get to experience a special event. I’m constantly cultivating the relational  connection.

If you’re leading people, you must maintain a personal connection with them.

2. Never use technology as a shield for a tough conversation.

Leaders have a responsibility not only to connect with their people to build positive relationships, but also to correct them when they do things wrong and to challenge them to perform at a higher level. Those conversations are often unpleasant but are a price you pay as a leader.

You owe it to people to have those conversations in person. I am astounded anytime I learn a boss has given bad news to an employee in a disconnected, impersonal way such as an email, a text message or voicemail.

If you care about people, meet with them face to face. Give them a chance to respond to your observations. And come to an agreement on how to proceed in the future. It gives you the best chance for success.

3. Never use technology when a more personal approach is available.

The bottom line is that if you want to maintain positive relationships with others and be an effective leader, use the most personal touch possible. Don’t email if you can make a phone call. Don’t call if you can meet face to face. Being in the room with someone for communication is always the best choice, if you can manage it.

Technology keeps changing, and as it does, it changes culture. But it doesn’t change leadership. Why? Because leadership is personal. It’s interactive. It’s creative and instinctive and dynamic. Those nuances get lost when layers of technology stand between people.

So if you’re a leader—or you want to become one—make it personal and make it count.