Marshall McLuhan’s Ideas Applied to the Leadership Dilemma


Leadership takes new direction

Brendan McDermid/Reuters files

In another few years, Occupy Wall Street may be seen as a tipping point in our present cultural instability. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters files)

By Mary Donohue

Are the leadership paradigms that have been the norm for the rich and powerful in the past few decades starting to crumble?

Witness the National Basketball Association negotiations or some of the police and political response to the Occupy Wall Street protests across North America. No one is getting the response he or she expected. Who knew that peaceful protests would sprout across North America in solidarity? Who also thought there would be no NBA season? Leadership that is based on the needs of a few rather than the requirements of many are beginning to slowly be defrocked because of what Marshall McLuhan would call an “extension” — social media.

McLuhan, who ran the Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, is best known for his “the-medium-is-the-message” theory. Among the terms he used were “extension” and “amputation,” and understanding these terms offers a key to understanding leadership and how to be a leader in the 21st century.

He contended that with extensions come amputations. Amputation is defined as the loss of a technology due to the adoption of a newer capability. When viewed in this way, social media can be considered an extension and advertising, pen-and-paper, lecture-based teaching or politics in the traditional style — meaning tell the masses what you need them to know and that’s it— is an amputation. 

McLuhan suggested that new technologies expand how we communicate, but that they also have a divisive effect. He said that both the American and French revolutions occurred as a result of the introduction of print. He theorized that each new form of media shapes our messaging. As our society’s values, culture and traditional ways of conducting ourselves change because of a new extension, we need to wake up and understand its social implications.

Today’s economy and culture are undergoing more than social change: it’s our own revolution — producing unrest in our cities. Relate the Occupy Wall Street protesters to the American Revolution, the French revolution — remember “let them eat cake?” Or more recently to the Vietnam War protesters who were mocked, beaten and jailed. Eventually, all of these revolutionaries were praised for change. I think in another few years, Occupy Wall Street may be seen as a tipping point in our present cultural instability.  Read the rest at .

If the medium is the message, then leadership is the articulation of the message. The past events of the last few decades, heck that last few months, have shown that the leadership that we are articulating is not the leadership we need to continue to develop as an economic and intellectual power.

—Dr. Mary, is an adjunct professor at Dalhousie School of Management. She is the creator the Donohue Mentoring System launching January 2011. Her latest book will be available in print and online next month.   

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