Leadership Myth #2 – Leaders Should Be Invisible

There is a saying attributed to Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” While this aphorism can serve as a useful corrective to the egoism and narcissism that insecure leaders can demonstrate, it is incomplete. Not untrue, just incomplete.

There exists a school of thought that says, in effect, that “good leaders aren’t in it for themselves, seeking attention is about self-glorification, therefore good leaders avoid the spotlight.” By contrast, I would argue that there are times when being invisible to those you lead is a profound leadership failure.

Some years ago as a newly-appointed Commanding Officer I was contacted by a senior Public Service manager to schedule some training for my junior officers and senior Non-Commissioned Officers (junior and middle managers if you will). I forget what the training was about but it was mandatory (and not very popular). We arranged a morning for the training. As I had taken the training before my arrival at the unit, I did not attend that morning. I reasoned to myself that it would be a waste of time for me to go, there were many more pressing issues to deal with. That afternoon the Public Service manager visited me in my office and subjected me to a respectful but severe tongue-lashing, advising (reminding) me that my being absent had sent a clear and powerful message to my leadership team that I didn’t think the training mattered.

In 2013 the city of Calgary was inundated by a massive flood. Five people died as a direct result of the flooding and over 100,000 were displaced. Throughout the crisis Calgary’s Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, maintained a very high profile. Whether in person, on television or social media, Calgarians were treated to multiple daily doses of their mayor at operations briefings, giving interviews, visiting emergency shelters and congratulating first responders. In a crisis situation his constant visibility gave frightened citizens confidence that the situation was being managed well, that emergency planners and responders were up to the challenge and that normalcy would, one day, return.

When times are good and congratulations abound, then a leader should fade into the background and ensure that the spotlight’s beam is squarely on his or her team. However, when times are tough and crises arise, a leader must be visible, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of those they lead, who need the reassurance and confidence that their leader’s presence should bring.

How do you handle this? Let’s talk about it!