The Distance of Leadership


A few years ago, we conducted a survey asking people these two questions.

“Whom in your entire life experience do you most admire as a leader?”

“Whom in your current organization or company do you most admire as a leader?”

Besides asking them to name the leader, we also wanted to know the key reasons for their particular selections and their relationships with them. Examples of relationships for the first question included teachers, coaches, military and business leaders, and U.S. Presidents to name a few, while the second included titles like company senior officer, CEO, division head, boss, etc.

The responses about why they selected who they did were predictable and consistent. But the “who” they selected was a different story, providing a rather unexpected, even surprising insight to us.

Before we go any further, let’s test our findings. Think for a moment about those most admired leaders in your own personal and organizational lives. How would you answer these questions?

What do you think was the most frequently cited response to each question?

Although we knew that many different names would be listed, our surprise came in the relationships.

Whom do we most admire in our life?

Mom and Dad. Parent was far and away, the most frequent response, getting the nod from well over half the respondents.

Whom do we most admire in our organization? Although about 20% answered no one, roughly 50% listed current or former immediate supervisor. Not the CEO, nor some other senior officer, but the boss, the person right above them in the pecking order.

At first, we did not know what to make of our results. We could hardly see ourselves sitting in front of a group of hard-nosed CEO’s telling them,

“You want to know who people most admire as leaders. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s mom and dad. Oh, and by the way, in organizations just like yours, the leaders most admired are the immediate bosses, people at every level.

How much more powerful it would be to tell them that the most admired leaders are people at the top, in important, prestigious positions just like theirs. We could have really perpetuated the myth that position and leadership are in fact the same.

Although the people we surveyed were of all levels, including senior management, none were CEO’s or the top officer. Might they too, have selected parents or peers as most admired leaders? We do not know for sure, but are willing to bet that one’s position has no bearing on the answer they give.

What does it mean?

To all of you who are reading this article and have children, take heed! Your children are most likely looking at you, more than anyone else, to provide leadership to them. And sooner than we know, they will be the pool from which the leaders of tomorrow’s organizations will come.

Also, never forget that you have a profound impact on those people that directly work for you. To most of them, you, not the CEO, are the symbol of leadership that they will carry forward with them. You make more of a difference than you may realize, no matter what level or salary grade you might happen to be.

The Real Lesson for Leaders

As we combined these findings with additional information on peoples’ perspectives about their leaders, we observed a rather disheartening trend. The survey data was very clear: People in organizations do not believe their top managers are trustworthy, honest or credible. Survey after survey showed that workers have little regard and even littler faith in top management.

What do the employee attitude surveys in your organization indicate?

Hopefully, the message is more positive, but chances are you can relate to what we discovered.

We believe that our findings about who we most admire as leaders and the credibility gap with higher management is related. The link is distance.

Parents and immediate supervisors have something in common – both are very close to us. We know them up close and personal. We see them very frequently, and in most cases, can literally touch them.

That is not the case with the relationships people have with higher levels of management. We don’t have the opportunity to really know them. Because they are further removed on a day to day basis, we know them primarily, based on what others say or write about them. We do not have any idea if they are truly trustworthy, capable of leading the business or even interested in other peoples’ well-being. We only know that they are secluded and isolated. They are not colleagues, friends or even remote acquaintances. They are distant, unknown strangers.

Think about people that you consider to be strangers to you. How easy is it for you to trust them? Are you more, or less likely, to give them the benefit of the doubt on decisions they’ve made that you don’t understand? To what extent are you able to be influenced by them, or choose to follow them? How likely are you to raise them to the top of your list of most admired?

Distance makes it tougher to lead

Who are the people in your organization that seem like strangers to you? Are they the more senior people, or are they in fact, the people who you are trying to lead? Are you the stranger in their eyes? What kind of implications would this have on your ability to inspire them to do extraordinary work for you?

It is predictable that surveys measuring leadership characteristics of higher management will result in lower scores. For most in a typical organization, the people a couple of levels away are really unknown. And with cynicism on the rise, it is no wonder that belief in top management is wavering.

Some of you might be thinking, wait a minute! Didn’t some respondents of your survey actually select as their most admired leader, the President, another head of state, or even some other relatively far removed business leader. The answer is of course they did. And here is what they told us about them.

They still felt close to those leaders. In some fashion, the leader managed to personally touch them. Whether it was by JFK’s vision of a new generation for America or Mother Theresa’s poignant work with the impoverished, people felt a special connection with them. Perhaps you know that feeling too.

Key to Effective Leadership

You must decide if getting closer to your constituents is really important to you. You can easily let the excuses of time or physical proximity justify the reasons you can’t. Or you can defy conventional wisdom and take the tough steps to close the distance.

You must make it a priority to become more visible and accessible. This may require some additional travel, or tougher yet, letting go of some of the things that you have always thought were essential to do.

But the real secret is to more fully utilize the precious little time you do get with others. It means being attentive to their wants, needs, anxieties and dreams. It means connecting the issues that are important to you or the organization with what is meaningful for them. It means shifting the focus from just you being heard, to them being listened to and understood. It means becoming more of a feeling, caring human being in their eyes.

The key to effectively lead others is to become closer to them. You may be able to “manage by walking around,” but you can only lead by being around.

Steve Coats is a senior partner with International Leadership Associates, a Cincinnati firm, dedicated to leadership development.

Copyright 1996 International Leadership Associates