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Spray Glue vs. Elmer's Glue: Leading with Diverse Materials

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At the recent TED Global conference in Edinburgh, I gave a talk framing some of my thoughts on the overlaps between technology, design, art and leadership, informed by my experiences as a designer and president of the Rhode Island School of Design. At the end of the talk, curator and host Bruno Giussani took the stage and asked me to comment about some of the lessons I've learned leading over the past four years. I said that it had to do with adjusting to a non-digital culture, and revisiting my optimism about the social media technologies I had seen born all around me in my former career at the MIT Media Lab.

I gave Bruno the analogy of using spray glue versus using Elmer's glue in how we build relationships. Spray glue is extremely convenient -- just spray it on a whole sheet of paper and it works within seconds, with one caveat: the stickiness doesn't last. That's what a lot of relationships built purely via social media can be like. In contrast, Elmer's glue needs to be applied sparingly and takes a considerable amount of time to dry. It's more like the relationship that's been built in person through a vigorous one-on-one debate, a homemade meal, or simply some undivided attention.

Today, leaders operate within a chaotic heterarchy and can find themselves nostalgic for the days of the orderly hierarchy. The line-worker can "friend" the CEO, and likewise the CEO can privately communicate directly with any layer in their organization. Coming from MIT, I was actually acculturated to this world early on and have always felt at home in a world where technology helps you reach out and touch thousands of virtual someones at the same time. Unlike many CEOs, blogging, tweeting, and experimenting with these tools in a management context is natural to me. But my biggest lesson so far as a digital native leader has been that certain relationships are best crafted one-by-one, face-to-face -- one drop of sloooow-drying glue at a time.

Like spray glue, social media lets you broadcast to hundreds of people at once, allows anyone to reply, and presto: you feel the satisfaction of having "communicated." But you're never really 100 percent sure if you really made them look, or what they were feeling on the other end when they received the message. In the context of leadership, social media can be a good way to share what's on your mind as a leader, and it provides that same incredible sense of efficiency as spraying glue onto a large surface. But it's nearly impossible to build trust in 140 characters. Like any material attached with only spray glue, commitment slowly starts to peel off and people become unfastened. After all, the only commitment you made on the other end was the second it took to press "send."

Being in the same place, getting to know one another and having shared experiences creates bonds that are much more difficult to break. Seeing someone's reaction first-hand after hearing an idea -- or better yet -- listening to them form an idea of their own, can't happen as effectively online. It is the Elmer's glue approach: taking the time to create meaningful relationships that have a better chance of sticking. This non-scalable, expensive, high-bandwidth communication technology we call "face-to-face interaction" is irreplaceable, though must be used selectively. For any leader, time is the most valuable resource, yet there isn't time in every case to wait for the glue to dry.

Like any artist creating a piece of work, both choosing your materials and minding the context in which the work is being made is critical. Until the paradigm of human nature gets disrupted -- and it may be the one "technology" that never does -- the old style of relationship building is here to stay. Yet for the increasing number of us who grew up with digital communication technologies in our foreground, we will need to take a page from our digital immigrant (and digital dinosaur) colleagues in order to make truly lasting, impactful relationships.