2016 / 5 June

You Can’t Lead From Behind a Desk! Or Can You?


Why is it that some leaders truly inspire people and others just fall just a bit flat? You know the great leaders I’m talking about! The ones that make your heart pound a little faster, make the impossible seem achievable, and make you want to go out and change the world!   What is it that they are doing that other leaders aren’t doing?

Let me just dispel any notion that you might have that I’m going to tell you how to “lead from behind a desk”.  You can’t — at least not effectively — and there’s a biological reason for it!

Let’s start with a little science. In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists discovered something called the mirror-neuron. While there is plenty of scientific debate, it has been theorized that these neurons are the basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy. From a leadership standpoint, empathy is one of the corner stones of establishing trust and creating an emotional connection with the people around you. Interestingly, experiments have shown that these neurons are the most active when people interact within the same physical location, followed by being able to visually see each other (e.g., video teleconference), and finally being able to just hear someone (e.g., a phone call). When it comes to tools like e-mail, social media, or other forms of digital communication, those same neurons show limited activity.

It’s no wonder that people are complaining that in our hyper-connected world that we’ve have never felt less connected!

Whether or not the scientists are correct in their theories is somewhat of a mute point. Ask any successful politician and they’ll tell you that shaking hands and meeting people face-to-face is an essential part of getting people to listen to your message and joining your cause. And when politicians can’t meet people in person, getting in front of a live television camera is the next best thing!

The lesson for leaders should be obvious. If you truly want to inspire the people in your organization to give their hearts, sweat and tears, you can’t do it from sitting behind a desk. I don’t mean to imply that simple going out and shaking hands with people is all it takes – you still need a compelling vision that people want to believe. However, there are plenty of leaders out there who had a great vision but never managed to get others to join them on the journey. The lost opportunities that the world has never known must be staggering!


So, what’s the problem? Individual personalities and culture have a great deal to do with it but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Pretty much every successful politician is a bit of an extrovert. They either come by it naturally or it’s something they’ve evolved into over years of practice – often with the help of a mentor. In fact, politicians who aren’t good with people typically don’t get very far in their career. The good ones naturally bubble to the top. On the other hand, business leaders often find themselves in senior positions for reasons that have little to do with how charismatic they are or how well they interact with staff.

Being an exceptional leader takes more than just charisma but being able to touch people’s hearts and minds can propel you from being merely good to being great!

If you’re a new leader learning the ropes or perhaps an established leader that just wants to more effectively connect with people, here are a few tips:

  • Get face-to-face with people – Emails, social media, and other forms of digital communications are great tools to reinforce key messages but face-to-face discussions are far more effective when it comes to establish lasting trust and empathy.
  • Make use of smaller informal settings – Don’t wait for large company meetings to talk with people. Large corporate meetings tend to be a one-way dialog and not nearly as engaging as smaller focused discussions. Just remember that “small talk” isn’t a universal custom in some cultures so make sure you know your audience and adjust your approach accordingly.
  • Consider getting rid of your office – Okay, I know for some companies and cultures this might seem sacrilege but it’s worth considering. I prefer using my office for private meetings or when I need to work on something confidential. Otherwise, I prefer to float amongst the teams – sitting in one area today and a different area tomorrow. Some teams and individuals don’t mind this sort of behavior from the boss but others may find it distracting – you’ll have to decide what makes sense for your work culture.
  • Follow through when you promise help – When you sit down with teams and ask, “how can I help you?” and they actually provide you with some suggestions, don’t just nod you head and do nothing. If you can’t do something or are unsure, then be upfront about it! If you can do something to make their jobs easier, then make sure you follow through and let them know. When it comes to building trust, your credibility is everything!
  • Admit to your mistakes – This is a tough one for many leaders because they feel like it makes them look weak or perhaps incompetent. If you are incompetent, well none of this matters and you should just quit now. But let’s assume you’re not and that you’re a fairy typical human being. That means you are going to make mistakes, wrong decisions, and occasionally trip over your own feet. When that happens and especially when it’s work related, don’t hide behind it. Admitting to a mistake, learning from it, and then changing directions indicates wisdom not weakness. It also sets a great example for everyone around you and makes you … well … more human!

So, I’ve given you five suggestions to get you started but there are many more. Share yours in the comments below!

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You can also find me on twitter at @NewFrontierCIO for more commentary on the frontiers of technology, leadership, space exploration, and science.


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