#481  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 7          July 2000

FORUM—from our readers

Leaders Should Be Seen

I’ve been a professional management consultant for nearly fifteen years and, until recently, have worked exclusively for external consulting firms.  Two years ago the “road warrior” lifestyle got to me and I accepted a position as an internal consultant for a large financial services company.  The work was the same, but the travel schedule and the pace were significantly reduced.  A consistent theme kept recurring: lack of basic leadership skills among upper-level management.  It seemed that every engagement required a significant portion of time dedicated to training, discussion, cajoling, and even imploring upper management to get out from behind their desks and lead their people.

Most of the engagements I worked on for this company resulted from issues stemming from recent merger and acquisition events.  These times are extremely anxious for even the most seasoned professionals and they require inspirational leadership if the merger period is to occur without a mass exodus of top people.  The problem is, that exactly when subordinates needed to see and hear their leaders most, is when those same leaders were hunkering down protecting their own turf.  Don’t misunderstand, the memos of concern were flying off the laser printers almost daily.  You know the ones I mean; official letterhead, colorful one-pagers informing everyone how concerned management is for their well being and signed with a first name only in a vain attempt to appear close.  Hollow communications that are scanned and tossed before lunch.  Instead of the memos, presence is needed.  The physical presence of a Jack Welch-type of leader means more to an employee than a ream of memos.  Visible leadership during turbulent times is meaningful.  The Captain of a ship is always on the bridge during a storm.

An example of this lack of visible leadership occurred last week.  A professional on our team accepted a position with another company, much to the chagrin of our management.  In an effort to get this person to change his mind, an appointment with our top-level manager was arranged for that afternoon.  I should note that this top-level manager is rarely around his team and even works in a different building.  During lunch a co-worker who had worked for this company for her entire 16-year career remarked that she couldn’t believe how quickly Mr. Smith “cleared his calendar” to meet with our friend who was leaving.  She went on to say how flattered he should feel that Mr. Smith made time to see him.  I was stunned.  One of our best people was leaving and she thought it was extraordinary that his boss’s boss wanted to know why and was willing to “make time” to do so.  My co-worker, was so conditioned to not seeing her leaders, that she thought the meeting was remarkable.  I thought it was too little too late.

Being exceptional at an activity, no matter how complex, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be exceptional at leading others in that same activity.  Too often people are promoted into leadership roles based on their technical acumen.  Leadership is the key to success, and credible visible leadership is a critical component of that success.  The Captain of a ship is always on the bridge during a storm.


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