Why Don’t Leaders Listen? Professor Hugh Mackay‘s keynote at the the 12th ACEL Leadership Conference was excellent and quotable. It was a great, reflective way to open the day and I’m certain the delegates, myself included, will listen to colleagues and students more closely in coming weeks. I was conscious that ‘tweeting’ during the talk looked suspiciously like not listening, especially as Mackay seems quite skeptical about the benefits of ‘social media’, but it is my way of taking and sharing notes.

The following were the highlights of the talk in my mind:

conference tweets

confrence tweets

I have, like many Australians, read Mackay’s writings in newspapers, journals and books across four decades. He shaped my thinking about many aspects of Australian culture and shone light into areas many of us had not thought much about. He has listened to countless thousands of Australians across many years as part of his research into our culture. So, it is not surprising that Professor Mackay did such a good job communicating how genuinely listening to colleagues and students changes workplace culture positively.

In recent years I have not always agreed with Mackay’s analysis of the impact of technology, especially social media, on our society. Much of what he says is fine and his point about ‘data transfer’ not being ‘communication’ is sage. However, I suspect his skepticism is a little unbalanced.

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Socrates’ objections to writing are oft quoted, especially in relation to similar, quite contemporary concerns, about social media. The argument goes something like Socrates would know he was wrong, if he lived today, as writing has transformed and democratised human culture for better, as will new media. Like Socrates, Mackay feels that technology prevents us from truly connecting and only offers an illusion of communication. Maybe, Mackay is correct and the seduction of technology is too much for us to resist and we are blithely unaware of the cost. I suspect that this is somewhat true but like writing, any costs are far outweighed by the benefits.

I did chat briefly with Professor Mackay at the conclusion of his talk about Socrates and writing. He agreed it was the beginning of not having to listen so closely. I also made the point that current ‘data transfer’ technology is certainly something that teachers need to be listening to closely, if they are to guide students through the ‘noise’ of contemporary life.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Melvin Gaal (

 I do need to allow for the possible ‘risk’ of ‘changing my mind’ after listening to the keynote today. I wonder if Professor Mackay is doing the same?

Featured image credit: cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by ky_olsen:


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