Category Archives: Leadership

The Leader Who Wasn’t There


We are masters of time travel

Back to the future

Stories interrupt

Images appear

Calling us into a trance

Willing us to be anywhere

But here and now


The prevailing story is that we have more distractions, more information and more decisions pressing our lives than ever before. Our attention span is shrinking; as little as 20 seconds according to some experts. Leaders in many organizations are stretched to breaking; juggling meetings, emails, inquiries and issues. As we manage the task in front of us we are already considering the next or perhaps mulling over a more complex issue that awaits our attention.

This frantic mental traffic puts us into a sort of trance. We see without seeing. We listen without hearing. We are here but not present. We may be in the room but our mind is in some faraway place or time.

So what does this mean in practical terms?

They need you.

And you are not there.

If we truly believe that the key to organizational progress, change and success lies in releasing the creative potential, discretionary effort and untapped energy in people then we must recognize the importance of our relationships. We must learn to bring our attention back to this moment, to this person, to this conversation and all the possibility it represents.

To truly connect with people we must be present.

This is hard work. It requires intention and practice. Our minds are conditioned. Our habits are deeply engrained. Yet we know that with time and effort we can change these patterns and teach ourselves to wake from the trance.

Our presence is a gift to ourselves. When are present we become fully aware of and accept what is happening right here, right now. In this state have access to all of our senses, our emotions and our accumulated experience. We’ve all experienced this focused presence even if for a short time and unexpected. We are never in a better position to make a real, lasting impact.

Our presence is a gift to others. When we are not present people feel it. We feign attention and respond from our programming but we miss the underlying story or unspoken need. We miss the person in our attempt to address the problem so we can move on to other things. They leave with a nagging sense of rejection or misunderstanding. Words left unspoken.

Presence says – “I see you.”

Presence says – “I hear you”

Presence says – “You matter”

Presence says – “I care.”

When we give the gift of presence we make a critical investment in our relationships and our leadership.

  • We gain understanding into the unique traits of those we serve
  • We learn about their fears, hopes, dreams and passions
  • We are more prepared guide their development
  • We open up the lines of communication
  • We build trust and deepen our understanding
  • We increase our emotional awareness and empathy
  • We can better express a purpose that aligns with their passion
  • We have deeper insight into the well-being of our team
  • We learn to apply presence to problem solving, innovation and other areas of leadership
  • We learn more about ourselves as we reflect on each experience

Presence is a simple and yet invaluable resource available to every leader.

And let’s face it..

it’s hard to be an effective leader…

if you’re not there.

Practicing meditation or similar disciplines can be a great way to start building the power to be present.

For deeper insight into this topic consider this talk and guided meditation by Tara Brach on “Relaxing into Living Presence“.

Please share your thoughts.

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“The Cheese Investigation” And The Perils of Clinging to Past Success

It’s very tempting to hold on to our past victories, and when the opportunity arises, to bring them into the present. The positive emotion we associate with these events becomes a filter for our current experiences. We set about attempting to replicate our success by framing problems to fit our previous solution. In other circumstances we might attempt to hide our anxiety or fear of being perceived as incompetent by relating these stories to others in hope that they will trust our judgement.

“During my time at this company…”

“I remember when we faced a similar challenge…”

“In my experience this is the best way to…”

“I’ve seen this story before and this is what we need to do…”

Do you notice these words, or others like them, in your conversations? Have you observed situations where you or others amplify or alter the scope a problem to fit a previous experience? What about the ‘snap answer’ because you (or they) have “been there and done that”? To put this in more practical terms; do you know leaders who are always trying to relive that one big career success?

While it is valuable to bring the things we have learned into the context of our daily challenges there are, as Captain Queeg so aptly and somewhat dramatically demonstrates, serious potential downsides if we take this too far.

  • When we cling to our past success we steal from the present. We see the situation as we want it to be, not as it is. Rather than being open we move to judgement, limiting our options. We risk prescribing without fully diagnosing and may end up doing more harm than good.

    “This looks to me like exactly the same situation.”

  • When we cling to our past success we exclude the experiences and perspective of others. Our mental filter leads us to premature certainty about the nature of the question and the answer so we shut out other options. Others on the team become frustrated when their ideas or suggestions are shot down with stories and solutions from our personal history.

    “Gentlemen you’ve spent the entire night and accomplished nothing while I’ve thought the whole thing out very clearly.”

  • When we cling to our past success we put a barrier between ourselves and others. Repeatedly sharing stories of the big project, big problem, big deal, big payday or how many years spent doing X or Y feels like posturing. People become frustrated with the leader’s impenetrable bias and begin to lose trust, hide problems and disengage.

    “Back in ’37 when I was a lowly ensign on a cruiser…5 lbs of cheese was missing.”

  • When we cling to our past success we damage our credibility. As it becomes clear a leader is aspiring to recreate previous victories at the expense of the present organization, members of the team will begin to lose confidence and may behave with passive aggression or seek ways to undermine the leader’s efforts.

    “Can’t you see what he’s doing? He’s reenacting the big triumph of his career.

Applying lessons learned along our journey can be helpful in facing today’s problems. As a leader it is important to leave room for new ideas, fresh perspectives and other means of achieving the goal. We can earn the respect of others by being open and approaching each challenge with a collaborative and creative approach that incorporates the best of the past and present.

Our history can be a useful frame of reference but is best applied with a good dose of mindfulness, humility and flexibility.

The harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there’s gold in letting go of them.
– John Seely Brown

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