Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Leadership Epiphany

This came as a sudden insight last night, but deep down it's probably something that everyone knows.

In an open dorm, some inmates have trouble bedding down at lights out and being quiet. Imagine a sleep-over of teenagers, most of whom are violent criminals. The swing shift officers want to pass a quiet dorm on to graveyard. Most of the time it's fairly smooth, but sometimes not.

Last night it was a back-up call. The dorm wouldn't quiet down. The officer was flashing the lights, yelling and threatening. The sergeant in charge of the sector informed the dorm that they would all lose walk time tomorrow.

I just stood by, watching as the loudest was handcuffed and taken to the "hole". The deputies left with that inmate and I started to walk out too, then there was a bunch of cat calls.

Nope. Not acceptable. I went back in the dorm, alone, and pulled up a chair next to the loudest cubicle and just sat there. They quieted down. Every place I looked at quieted down. For fifteen minutes I just sat and one by one the inmates drifted off to sleep or read their books. A few nodded thanks (inmates like the dorms clean, quiet and safe just as much as the officers do). No arguments, no disciplinary action, no threats, not even any instructions. Just being there was enough.

By my definition, it was what leadership is supposed to be- people wanting to do what needs to be done.

It occured to me that leadership requires physical presence. You have to be there. You can't lead from a far away office any more than an officer can control inmates through a speaker in the wall. The people you are trying to lead HAVE to see you. There can be no leadership from a distant headquarters building or comfy corner office. At best, that can rise to the level of management. Leaders must be seen.

Just as important, you must be seen being the way you want your troops to be. You want them to work hard, they must see you go the extra mile. You want them to be respectful, they must see you showing respect. You want them to be conscientious, they have to occassionally see you clean up the break room or pick up trash when it's not your job.

This kind of leadership isn't limited- politeness, respect, work ethics- can all be contagious without a supervisor/subordinate relationship.

And it can backfire just as bad, even without direct presence- when leaders are shown morally weak or lazy or angry (all the things that make the paper) that is what the people you are trying to lead see. The best reject the leader, the worst use his behavior as an excuse to live down to that level.

You must be seen.

You must be seen as you want others to be.

That simple.

1 comment:

Mac said...

Almost every program that exists for helping the 'unfortunates' uses intellectual-verbal (rational) curricula as education/interventions. But the target audience lives on the emotional (or ego - another level with it's own intervention techniques) level. Using the rational on the emotional/ego is like trying to kick from the guard - you'll get a result, but not a win. You've discovered the one technique that transcends the levels - silence. Speak lightly and let the subject hear his own voice in the silence between.