One might think there’s little in common with two of the news stories that have dominated recent conversation. There’s Anthony Weiner, of course, the New York representative who has been the subject of tabloid-worthy headlines after he accidentally broadcast a photo of his, well, wiener inside his underwear to all of his Twitter followers, rather than send it as a private message. And as of Friday, some 24,000 emails that Sarah Palin sent while governor of Alaska will be released to the public after years of efforts by journalists and citizens to reveal them.
Granted, as of now, we have no idea what the Palin e-mail trove will include. Some think it will show little, but a comment she made on Fox News Sunday makes it appear there’s at least a danger some of the exchanges won’t be so flattering. “A lot of those emails obviously weren't meant for public consumption,” she told host Chris Wallace. And Weiner, of course, has bigger issues to wrestle with than just resisting the urge to send something electronically that he shouldn’t.
Still, both cases are a reminder of the imminent danger for leaders of misusing electronic communication. The immediacy of digital speech—whether it’s a direct message on Twitter that leads off with an “@” command when it should have been a “D” or a private email quip that should never have been written down—somehow changes our filter. It’s so easy to jot off a quick message on Twitter or shoot off an e-mail reply that the format imposes a mindset in which second thoughts are less frequent. Especially now that we Tweet and email and Facebook on mobile devices while we’re distracted, we’re less likely to think first and send later. Add to that the incredibly busy nature of most leaders’ professional and personal lives, and e-mail and Twitter become tools used even when a phone call would be better.
So what will it take for us to learn? Most people placed in a leadership position—especially those as prominent as Weiner’s and Palin’s political offices—have had someone give them the advice of not doing or saying anything you wouldn’t want to appear on the front page of a family newspaper. It’s a leadership maxim nearly as old and hackneyed as the golden rule, but leaders habitually ignore it all the time—and if anything, it’s getting worse.
Again, Weiner has a lot more on his plate than just how not to get caught sending racy photos of himself next time. He’s under pressure to resign, for one, not to mention the marital discord that’s sure to result from his behavior. And Palin’s emails may end up revealing little more than official business and harmless banter between staffers. Still, both stories are reminders for those of us who aren’t about to have the contents of our e-mail spilled, or who would never even think of sending a photo like Weiner’s, that it’s still all too easy for digital communication to go wrong, be misinterpreted or get sent before it’s been given a second thought. Perhaps that old maxim should be updated for today’s world, and shortened simply to: Stop and think before you send.
More from On Leadership: