Leadership in Real Life: Trade Form for Substance

Sooner or later, they're going to catch you picking your nose.

Well, maybe not. Maybe you'll be fishing your keys out of a storm drain, or talking to your dry cleaner, or sneezing through a hay fever attack. But when you lead people in a meaningful way, you're around them regularly, and sooner or later they're bound to see you engaged in mundane everyday life.

Much has been written about the glam, gravitas, posture, and positioning of what we loosely refer to as leadership. "Leaders" of this genre enter a room and command it, their stewardship measured in awed silence and respectful tones. Trust and allegiance result naturally, says the mythology, as individual wills fall effortlessly to the leader's charm and presence.


If your definition of leadership goes beyond rapt attention while you're in the room, your leadership presence needs to go beyond glam, gravitas, posture, and positioning. It needs to persist while you're in the room, after you've departed, and even despite mundane images of you fishing keys out of a storm drain or fumbling with your phone. Your leadership presence must teach your followers that you're leading them somewhere useful, that you're good at doing so, and that you're flexible and ethical as challenges and changes arise.

Creating this kind of presence doesn't require you to wear a blazer over a turtle neck, to address hundreds with a one-word PowerPoint slide, or to tell paradoxical parables from Lotus position. It does, however, require you to be consistent and predictable in support of your stated goals.

Here are four of the most important ways to do that:

First, regularly state your intentions: summarize the results you intend for your team to produce, in about five measurable items that you can articulate in around ninety seconds. Think of this as the elevator pitch for your output,* and repeat it regularly to everyone: "We're going to win this piece of the market"; "we're going to deploy this product"; "we're going to turn around this division." Don't be afraid to repeat yourself.

Why? If you jump between priorities, you'll seem mercurial and inconsistent. But if you're clear and persistent about objectives, you'll create cohesiveness and clarity on your team, and people will bring information pertinent to your intentions. And, when you do make a course change, people will detect it and realign quickly.

Second, run things predictably. Establish a cadence in which meetings are held and issues decided. For example, you might have a staff meeting every week to address escalated needs from the organization. Make sure this meeting happens on schedule - when you're not available, assign a delegate with clear authority and boundaries.

Why? If for some team members or during some time periods you allow back-door or irregular access to your decisions, your staff will do the same, and you'll create a culture that's problem-solving the best way to get approval. But if you're regular in meeting and decision cadence, your organization will spend their problem-solving calories where they belong: getting real work done.

Third, own your role as decider. Be clear that you want good data and full participation in decision making, but be equally clear that the buck stops with you at your level - and, with each member of your team at theirs.

Why? If you say things like "we're a family" and "I'd like us all to agree," you lose credibility and respect, sounding infeasible, weak, and dishonest. But if you let people know that, although you want to hear them, the weight of the decision rests with you, they'll appreciate your candor. They'll also start paying attention to how well you make decisions, instead of how to exert their fair share of control over your process.

Last but not least, listen. Listen for information coming up through formal and informal channels, for customer and market feedback, and for early signs of engagement or disengagement in your organization. Listen for new information you haven't thought of, and listen most carefully to things that sound furthest from your expectations.

Why? Positioning yourself as the big know-it-all sets you up for a big fall. But if you keep learning, keep responding to what you learn, and keep saying "I don't know" when it's true, you'll gain trust and instill a culture of learning in your organization, too.

Leaders, please: get consistent and transparent as quickly as you can. Build a leadership presence that's functional, not superficial. Become the kind of leader people want to be around, day in and day out, as they work together toward shared goals. Become a leader in real life.

Of course, I'm not going to lie. It's also better if you don't get caught picking your nose.

* In reality, the "elevator pitch" arose from the research on this behavior, not the converse