A while back, I asked a senior executive to meet with a group of relatively young, but eager rising leaders. He showed up in jeans, which did not match the company’s cultural norms, hoping to come across as approachable, despite his high ranking. He adjusted his style to draw near…and, in return, they felt comfortable to ask candid questions and share their ideas.
Another time, I walked the factory floor with a Senior Vice President who stopped multiple times along the way to converse with various mechanics. She learned their names and assumed the role of a student, asking them to teach her about the work they were doing. She left the bounds of her office to draw near… and, in return, they felt valued and respected.
One other time, I watched a senior leader welcome a group of new hires at their orientation seminar. He purposefully left his smartphone in a separate room and stated that he didn’t want any distractions during his time with them. He made himself fully present to draw near…and, in return, they felt engaged (and extra chatty, going 45 minutes past the allotted Q&A time!).
Good leaders draw near. There is power in proximity. The people we are leading, and therefore serving, need to feel us present. We can’t understand their challenges unless we get close enough experience their viewpoint. Most importantly, we don’t need the answers to their problems before drawing close; instead, drawing close helps to unveil the answers.
These wise insights on the power of proximity are not my own. They were taught by the inspiring Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, at last week’s Global Leadership Summit and they have been echoing in my head since. And while Bryan uses these truths to powerfully serve and empower marginalized communities and individuals, the same principles apply to every leader.
As humans, we are wired to avoid discomfort. Drawing near is often uncomfortable, but trust is built in proximity. Transparency flourishes in proximity. Understanding and empathy are developed in proximity. And the path forward is identified in proximity. We must be willing to draw near, comfortable or not. As Mr. Stevenson said, “Great leaders are willing to do uncomfortable things.” And I’ll add that great leaders are also willing to do inconvenient things. Drawing near may not dictate the fastest results, but in the long-run, it will empower and engage individuals and teams who deliver better, more sustainable results, time and time again.
So go draw near...and if you don't know where to start, then start with food. Where there is food, people will gather. And as they eat, they'll start to talk, even if you don't know what questions to ask. So take an employee to coffee or bring in donuts for the team and embark on the ongoing journey of drawing near.
Abbey uses over a decade of talent management experience to help organizations drive business results through enhanced employee engagement. She is passionate about empowering individuals and teams to be their best. She's also a mom to two sweet girls, a wife to one good man, and a fan of running and hosting dinner parties.