The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
Presence, not Presents
It was the Southern Colorado District Tennis Championships. Playing Pueblo West in the finals, my Mitchell High School doubles partner and I were in for a tough match. For the first time, we would face line judges, a referee, and a crowd (gulp). The stands were full and the tiny stadium was lined with people. We hit a few warm-up balls, and then came the call for player introductions. The crowd and cheerleaders went wild for Pueblo West. “Cool,” I thought. The announcer then called out our school and names next.
The silence deafened me.
Finally, a small but authoritative voice called from outside the fences. “Go, Ed’vard! Go, Ed’vard! Go, Ed’vard!” Yep, my mom, in her thick German accent, cheered us on—one lone fan among the hundreds watching. Out of respect to us, and to honor my mom, the entire crowd broke into applause. We felt the love.
Moms teach us something unique about leadership. But that object lesson often gets lost between high school graduation and our first day in the corporate world. We somehow compartmentalize traits and end up leaving this vital asset outside the doors of our organization. Yet this talent that makes a family tight is also what makes the team tight and the platoon fight.
What is it, you ask? Relationship. I’ll unpack it for us to chew on.
1) The Burden of Visibility. Like it or not, it comes with leadership. Once you leave line staff and enter a position of authority, your orientation must change. Your primary purpose is to serve the team or platoon that actually does the work. Your time is no longer your time. Your calendar becomes your staff’s calendar. A great leader learns to be unselfish—just like Mom taught.
2) The Tactic of Availability. How available are you? Your staff could tell you because it’s not something you can easily mask. Do you solely demand your agenda be met, or do you occasionally meet with them on their agenda? When is the last time someone popped into your office unannounced just to talk? How often do you spend time outside of work with staff? Do you know all your staff names and what team they are a part of? (That can be tough!)
3) The Participation Act. (This requires prioritizing, rearranging your schedule, and good time management.) Take part in life events. Even ten minutes of your life can make a decade of a difference to staff. Join in the celebration of a new baby, a marriage, or a graduation. When tragedy strikes, mourn with the family. Visit sick staff at home or in the hospital. Think about what really matters in light of eternity and make the sacrifice today. If Mom was an example of caring for her fellow man, then practice what she preached through her actions.
4) Engagement. The more a leader engages, the more impact the department has. Be real. Be transparent. Who wants to serve a stodgy, close-minded, secretive leader? Nobody. Think back to whose house you played at as a kid. Probably the home where Mom baked the cookies, offered wise counsel, and didn’t mind messes. If you’ve ever dreamed of making your organization the best place to work, then engage.
A true story: Norman’s soldiers feared death in the brutal killing fields of the notorious Batangan Peninsula. He vowed none would ever be left behind. One day, he received word that his men had encountered a minefield. He rushed to the scene in his helicopter and found several soldiers still trapped. Norman urged them to retrace their steps slowly. Still, one soldier tripped a mine. Severely wounded, the man flailed in agony, and the soldiers around him feared he might set off another mine. Norman, also injured by the explosion, crawled across the minefield to the wounded man and held him so another could splint his shattered leg. One soldier stepped away to break a branch from a nearby tree to make the splint. In doing so, he triggered a mine, killing himself and two other soldiers. That explosion also blew an arm and a leg off the artillery liaison officer. With much effort, Norman led all the survivors to safety. Although he had every right to stay safe, he returned the minefield to retrieve the injured. He could have lectured his staff on the dangers of war and the need to look out for one another. Instead, he showed the way. He served. Nobody ever questioned his commitment to his staff. As a result, they fought harder.
We recently had a tragedy with one of our staff. I mourned the loss of this great person and cried with the family who just lost their daddy. But I also cried because of the outpouring of love and support I witnessed from staff and leaders. We had leaders attend the ceremony who were not in this person’s chain of command, but came out in support for this man and his family. They could have just written a check for a special scholarship fund, but they also chose to be there. Presence, not presents.
Time holds top value to the heart. We can’t let that value slide simply because we’re on the corporate ladder. Don’t let the rat race run over your humanity.
Reap the benefits. They are numerous. When staff know you care, their level of engagement rises. You can rah-rah all you want at staff meetings or in your blogs, but they will respond to the tangible evidence. Words can ring hollow.
General Schwarzkopf, who saved the young soldiers, went on to become General of the Army. He led the Gulf War effort via Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. In his autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, the General speculates that the way he was present with his soldiers in the minefield firmly cemented his reputation as an officer who would risk his life for those under his command.
My partner and I lost that tennis championship match 6-2, 6-1. Mom could have just given me a gift that evening or taken me out to dinner. But what spoke volumes was the fact she took the time out of her busy day to stand in the heat and watch her son play tennis. I preferred losing and having my mom there more than winning without her. That is how much time together means to me. It means the same to your staff.
Presence, not presents expands a good leader into a great leader.
P.S. While you are attending staff’s life events, watch who shows up that did not have to be there. Write down their names, because you’ve probably just identified an emerging leader of a unique breed.
Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.