february 2015

For more than a decade I have been formally and intensively studying leadership, exploring the cutting edge of leadership theory. Oddly, it seems the more I learn, the more I believe that a few pretty basic, simple rules really matter for effective and practical leadership.

For example, if you want to lead, you need to show up. Once you show up, you need to engage. As a consultant, I have the privilege of observing a lot of workplaces and a lot of leaders; lately, the relatively thin slice of people-in-charge who one could describe as either present or engaged gets my attention.

To lead, one must be present. I am not talking “present” as in command presence or leader presence, but being there; physically present in the workplace; in contact with the people you are supposed to lead. These days, too often, people who are in charge of something are trying to phone in their leadership. I realize it seems like everybody is leading remotely, but folks, the people who want and need your leadership want to see your eyes, read your smile, sit down near you, and generally benefit from your complete communication — the overwhelming majority of which you transmit non-verbally.

Providing leadership may mean staying home: skipping the staff meeting in that fun city, turning down a spot on a high profile task force or committee, or forgoing that training session you wanted to attend. Yes, leadership requires personal sacrifices. Besides, any leader worth their salt knows that by spreading those responsibilities around, you provide growth and development opportunities for the people you lead and generate leadership.

Being present is one thing. But to lead, just being there is not enough. One must also engage. Lately, I have observed people in charge who, even when present in the workplace, seem so emotionally remote that they might as well have stayed home. In fire service organizations the disengaged seem to cluster at opposite ends of a spectrum. On one end I find people lacking confidence in their own leadership abilities, often afraid that the people for whom they are responsible will reject them and, therefore, not really wanting to engage with the people around them. On the other end of the spectrum, I encounter confident people very busy trying to appear infallible, inscrutable, a bit aloof, not really needing to engage with the people around them.

Interestingly, the passively disengaged and the actively disengaged take two very different paths often ending at the exact same destination: isolation from their most important resource, the people around them. Bottom line, a person leads when they influence people, and to effectively influence people and allow them to influence you, one must engage.

Engagement can be scary: it requires the leader to accept a degree of vulnerability, to let go of who we think we should be and instead be who we are, and to talk about what we want and believe. In short, leadership, and the engagement that it requires, takes courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite one’s fear.

For would-be leaders, that means leading with your entire being, throwing oneself into it without guarantees that anyone will respond or follow. Too often, would-be leaders allow their fears of embarrassment, criticism, rejection, or failure to freeze them in their tracks; essentially guaranteeing a lack of effectiveness.

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Here, a little resignation can come in handy and, on this matter, I agree with Eleanor Roosevelt who was reported to have said “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

I recently had the pleasure of interacting with a leader who struck me as both present and engaged. I encountered this leader at an event in the leader’s department, to which he had invited me. Given a very busy schedule crammed full of diverse responsibilities, he could have made any number of excuses for not attending this event; yet there he was, demonstrating an interest in the work of the people he leads. I observed that this leader engaged with the people present. Not in a phony, backslapping, work-the-room kind of way — just an approachable, accessible, collegial style. As I watched the assembled group I realized that people demonstrated comfort with the person for whom they worked.

When it came time for us to meet, I found this leader uncommonly positive about his department, about the people in the department, about their mission, and about the working environment they had created together. He communicated well, but with an openness and unguarded manner that I do not see that much these days.

As we talked I found myself thinking “I bet it’s nice to work for this guy.” As I walked back to my car, I realized that talking to this person had actually improved my day; that I felt better when I left than I had felt when I arrived. I paused for reflection when I reached the car, thinking “I hope that every once in a while, I have the effect on other people that this person had on me today.”


Mike DeGrosky is Chief Executive Officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.