In the last few pages of my book, Governance and Social Leadership (CBU Press, 2014), I discuss the impact of noise on the development of governance and leadership. We did not have time to cover this topic at length in class, but it is an area that I think is of critical importance when it comes to developing an understanding of why we are continually hearing about crises in governance and leadership in all areas of human activity. Rather than restating my remarks, here is the central portion of that text.
We have become so accustomed to a noisy world, that our ability to be quiet has all but vanished. In fact, it is likely that for many people, the few moments of genuine quiet they experience induce as much, if not more, anxiety than the normal cacophony to which they are exposed. We are barraged with so much visual, sonic and tactile data that our overloaded senses shut down out of exhaustion. On the rare occasion when we are immersed in quiet, we fidget and fuss, searching for distraction – no longer knowing how to cope. Applying this notion more broadly, I would suggest that the current problems we are encountering with our systems of governance and leadership are best viewed as crises of noise.
Communications experts speak about the signal-to-noise ratio of a transmission. What this concept expresses is the extent to which the meaningful and intentional part of a message can win out against the interference that it encounters. Advances in information and communications technologies have provided media gurus, politicians, marketers and special interest groups with the means to flood the environment with noise. Some of this effort, of course, is designed to drown out the competition – a futile exercise that results in nothing but escalation. Some of it, however, is designed to prevent discussion that would lead to understanding and, beyond that, to evaluation, condemnation and the initiation of alternative courses of action. In the absence of quiet, and in order for social interaction to be constructive, individuals must learn to filter out noise. (pp. 197-198)
We spent the whole course talking about building the capacity to act in organizations. Many organizations exert a great deal of effort trying to design and implement effective governance structures, and even more time is often spent on the training and development of leaders. However, perhaps we should be more interested in learning how much effort they are expending on eliminating, or at least limiting, the incapacitating effects of noise.