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Leading with Character: From a Distance

Last week, in honor of Mother’s Day, I treated my mom to a ride in a helicopter. Not your usual Mother’s Day gift, but it was a perfect surprise for my mom. She loves heights and has always wanted to go up in a helo. Many years ago, I surprised her with a hot air balloon flight during a vacation in Phoenix, AZ. Some years after that, a friend took her up for a ride in a private plane. All that was missing from that triumvirate of aviation experiences was the helicopter!

Looking Down
The day of the big event dawned beautifully with that cool breeze and those wispy clouds that are so common during springtime on Cape Cod. Our pilot was personal and professional, and eager to provide us an exciting and memorable experience aloft. As we headed north toward Cape Cod Bay, then turned to follow the Cape Cod Canal, I started to recognize familiar landmarks. I was immediately struck by how beautiful the scenery looked—the newly-budding trees carpeting the landscape in an emerald glow; the sandy beaches peppered with quaint coastal villages; the azure-blue waterways winding like a maze through the marshland. Everything looked blue, green, and clean from up there. And I thought about images of Earth sent back from space – they’re breathtaking; even surreal.

Looking Around
But on the ground, it’s different. I see Cape Cod up close and personal during my morning walks and when I take my mom on scenic drives. On the ground, it’s real, not surreal. It’s like using a magnifying glass. The beauty can be even greater. I see the birds hopping through the trees and hear them singing. I smell the sweet scent of the andromeda bush in full bloom. But I also see the litter, the unkempt homes; I hear the sound of chain saws destroying majestic trees to make way for yet another housing development or solar farm.

Keeping Perspective
Those observations caused me to contemplate parallels with leadership. Leaders can become even better if they know when to step back and look at the bigger picture, and when to lean in to focus on the details. There are times when a leader should take the perspective of looking from a distance to perceive the goodness of the organization or the team. That helps the leader keep a positive outlook, which inspires people and gives them hope when times are tough. To me, positivity is a key attribute of a successful leader.

Yet a leader has to balance the bigger picture view that can make everything look deceptively good with the reality of what’s happening in the workplace. I’ve witnessed naïve leaders who see only the good because they don’t get close enough to find out what’s happening in their organization or workplace. Workplace climate can suffer when standards aren’t enforced, expectations aren’t met, workers don’t have the resources needed to do the job, and much more. It takes engaged leadership—deckplate leadership for those like me who have served at sea—to effectively lead. That means getting out and walking around to find out what’s working well, what needs to be done better, and what people need.

A Force Multiplier
Good leaders know they can’t be looking from a distance and engaging on the ground at the same time. So, they lean on and empower the leaders one or two steps below them. Engaged leadership at all levels is key to success in a high-performing organization.

Look in the mirror. What do you see when you look at your organization or team “from a distance”? Does that match what you see when you walk around?

Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character.

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