Saturday, June 26, 2010

Flyer, Driver, Walker: what kind of leadership journey are you on?

It's summer, and I found myself thinking about life and leadership in terms of travel, along with some remarks I have heard over the years.

Flyers: Leading by Proxy

We have seagull leadership – they fly into town, shit on our heads, then fly away.
VP of market operations

Many people own stock. I do too. Every now and then, shareholders get a notice of an election or vote to be held, along with an invitation to send in a vote, by proxy. In this situation, my proxy stands in as my representative voice, my surrogate, the fake Russ.

Leadership by proxy isn't as helpful. It's fake leadership. It doesn't build the long-term health of the organization or its community, and besides, nobody likes pearls of wisdom dropped on their heads.

These flyers demonstrate very little commitment to community, the customer or employee experience. They fly into a meeting, then fly out, confident they have grasped the situation and set things straight, while a helicopter staff pops in every morning to deliver information and receive updates. Send them back to their home by the beach.

Riders: Leading by Observation

Our CEO's understanding of the community? About as deep as the tread on his Lexus' tires.
Manager, field sales

A majority of us experience life as a sequence of trips: we drive to the store, we drive to the office, we drive to our kid's school. Usually, we're only slightly aware of the communities we pass through to get to our destination. But how much can we really learn about customers when we zoom past their houses at 75 mph?

This type of leadership is mixed, at best. Yes, they see some community challenges firsthand, but they are still passengers: they come
close to the community experience but they never fully engage in it. It's the average leadership experience. However, I think truly great leaders choose to walk instead…

Walkers: Leading by Experience

"Often I walked without any staff or supporters. As a result, I was able to see firsthand Florida's natural beauty, as well as its people and their challenges."
Lawton Chiles

In 1970, Lawton Chiles decided to run for a seat in the United States Senate. At the time, he was largely unknown outside his district, so he embarked on a 1,003-mile, 91-day walk across Florida, from Pensacola to Key West. He even worked at local businesses as he traveled. It made him a local legend and earned him the nickname "Walkin' Lawton".

I think of a “walker” as the kind of leader who remains close to their community, customers and employees. For them, developing, sustaining and improving the service experience is a daily discipline. Walkers do more than walk a mile in the customer’s shoes, they stand beside their customers and help deliver the experience, as any partner would.

Fly, drive or walk?

Flying around seems energetic and seductive, yet it disconnects leaders from their community.

Ray Bradbury once described the great majority of us as seeing life in a "blur", a general wash of images and color as we speed by. Yet driving through a community like a tourist just seems too passive. Not really the definition of leadership, is it?

I admire walkers like Lawton Chiles, leaders who take the time to lead through daily contact, a step-by-step journey that shapes them and the people they are trying to lead.

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