Several weeks ago I attended the College of William & Mary’s commencement. Actress and William & Mary alumna Glenn Close spoke eloquently about her journey to college—by no means a typical one—including how and why she landed at one of the country’s oldest universities. At its core, her story of breaking away from life in a cult involved face-to-face communication, perception, empathy, and reaction. In her telling, she saw herself in the eyes of others, realized her life might be different, and summoned the courage to escape from the cult and enter college. There she found the support and nourishment to develop her theatrical talents. The rest, as they say, is history.

Close’s words conveyed a powerful message to the 2019 graduates: Look at and speak more with actual people and less with machines and screens.

Her story of personal awareness and discovery in the course of face-to-face communication raises important questions about the changing nature of human interactions in a digital world. Only recently have we begun to appreciate the significance of this abrupt change. Research questions abound, but the primary issue is how the change from mainly face-to-face interactions to digital interactions has influenced our ability to live, play, and work together. Those of us who investigate questions related to leadership, leaders, and followers are wondering how the nature of leadership is changing in a digital age.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the 2019-20 Jepson Leadership Forum speaker series bears the provocative title “Digital Dystopias: Truth and Representation in a Digital Age.” I look forward to the series and hope it will help clarify questions that are emerging daily about how communication has evolved in the last decade.

I fully appreciate the enormous benefits we enjoy due to the digital age. I also know that few among us are able or willing to return to the days when only the phone and printed words served as long-distance communication media. The key question, in my mind, is how to preserve and enjoy the benefits of the digital age while remaining fully human, that is to say, sociable.

Human society requires just that—society—human interactions and all the learning and reform that come with society. Through these interactions and reform, we derive happiness and vitality and make ourselves individually and collectively better. From a leadership standpoint, I worry we may be losing the happiness and vitality that typically characterize a truly social way of being. We must, therefore, heed, repeat, and live Glenn Close’s message to engage in face-to-face interactions.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon from New York City, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Leadership in a digital age

Sandra J. Peart

Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to and see faculty information.

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