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Sofa leaders. Can great leadership exist without being present?

Since COVID-19 hit our world fast and furious, forcing many of us to live and work sequestered in our homes, I’ve struggled with the answer to this question: Can I be an effective leader without being present?

I have led this company by being an active and present leader.

I confront problems face to face. I forge personal relationships with my team and customers. I have taken the time to discuss concerns through candid conversations. I practice giving praise and affirmation freely and publicly. I share decisions and changes openly and honestly. 

I have overcome my fear of public speaking to stand up and speak when people need to hear me speak, been outspoken for my team when they need me in their corner, and I have maintained an open door when people need to share, vent or have a glass of wine.

Sending someone like me home for ten weeks to figure out how to lead everyone through the scary unknown, with nothing but Zoom and Slack at my disposal—seemed like doom.

Three months into this pandemic we now emerge, cautiously approaching our work lives with a new perspective. Why do we have to go back to the office? Why do we have to commit time to a physical location? Why can’t we continue to use tools like Slack and Zoom and work from the comfort of our homes, horrid sweatpants and all?

We can. And in fact, we are.

Since COVID, almost 40% of Canadian employees are working from home. It is reported that of those, 58.4% have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 21.5% of those who continue to work outside the home, pointing to the fact that working from home is more feasible for workers employed in professional or managerial occupations, which happens to be my company.

Working from home has proven to be a very positive thing. Figures show that two-thirds of managers report that employees who work from home increase their overall productivity. Big companies like Twitter and Google have taken notice of this as well, opting to allow their employees to work from home indefinitely.

Our team here has proven in spades that they are committed, productive and accountable while working from home. It has been a win-win situation. I get happy employees who enjoy their flexible schedules, and I’m seeing the same, if not better, productivity, than when they were all in the office full time. There is no question that the work from home model works for my company.

However, my question isn’t about productivity. 

I want to know if leadership is possible while not being present.

A study of over 300,000 leaders shows that some of the top ten skills that a leader needs to succeed are: inspiring and motivating others, communicating powerfully and prolifically, communicating honestly and transparently, and building relationships. 

You can achieve those things working remotely if you take a proactive approach to staying connected, claims Brian de Haaf, co-founder and CEO of Aha!, a US based IT company. He has found success for his startup company leading his remote employees by sharing goals, communicating daily and showing team spirit.

What the article leaves out is one important piece of information. How did de Haaf gain his leadership skills to begin with? From looking at his LinkedIn bio, I’m certain it wasn’t by being a remote employee himself.

In the book Brave Leadership by Kimberly Davis, when teaching about executive presence, she says, “What I’ve heard from participants over and over again is if their leaders aren’t present, they start to check out. They stop bringing their ideas. They stop sharing their challenges and their wins. They stop turning to their leaders for support. They stop caring—at least about their leader.”

Leaders who defer face-to-face interaction lose the ability to get a real sense of work habits, attitudes and character traits. It also makes it difficult to forge close relationships and to have candid, spontaneous conversations. And that’s when people start to check out.

In the book Mind of the Leader research shows that there’s a direct correlation between a leader’s mindfulness and the well-being and performance of their people. In other words, the more a leader is present with their people, the better they will perform, the more safe they will feel, and the more confident and motivated they will be to do their jobs.

Doug Conant, an internationally acclaimed business leader has developed rituals for physically and psychologically connecting with people at all levels in the company. These touchpoints are not just strategies to enhance productivity; they are heartfelt efforts to support his people. This type of people-first approach champions workplace trust and clarity of purpose, some of the key factors to delivering extraordinary results.

Love him or hate him, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has built a culture of presence. His groundbreaking work-life office spaces in Silicon Valley give his team a place to congregate and develop a sense of community. He also gives his people the ability to see him practically every day, even choosing to work inside a clear glass-walled office where his employees can see him working.

Being a leader people want to follow.

One of the single most powerful secrets to being a great leader is emotional intelligence, or EQ. The ability to actively participate in interpersonal communication and understand the nonverbal cues of behaviour. Psychologist Joh Mayer at the University of New Hampshire says emotional intelligence is “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions, to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships, and to manage your own and others’ emotions.”

According to Forbes, “When you learn to better identify and manage your emotions — and the emotions of others — company decisions will become easier, business relationships will improve, and you’ll be the leader your team wants to rally behind.”

Ahhh, there it is, those magic words—being a leader your team wants to rally behind.

That couldn’t be more relevant in the world today. People are crying out for leadership, with the World Health Organization publicly stating: “The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself, it’s the lack of global solidarity and global leadership.”

Okay, okay, I admit, I can’t compare my small business to global politics. But the point I’m trying to make here is that whether it’s on a large or small scale—people need, and actually crave, present leaders.

A generation with a conundrum on their hands. 

There is no doubt that the remote workplace is here to stay. Can you have absolutely amazing employees working from home. 100 percent yes.

But, does great leadership exist without being present?

It’s a complex answer. Yes, you can lead a team virtually. Today’s leaders will have no choice but to adapt and learn new skills to lead this new generation of remote workers. I already find myself looking for new creative ways to stay engaged and to offer my support and inspiration.

However, the next generation of leaders needs to realize that in order to learn how to lead, you need to get uncomfortable. You have to put in the time and effort to hone communication skills and emotional intelligence. To become an effective leader, from any location, you first must consistently interact with your staff, colleagues and clients to achieve your goals and share your vision.

That means getting out of your sweatpants and showing up. It means making an inconvenient commute to collaborate with colleagues in person. It means honing your communication skills by walking to someone’s desk to ask how they’re doing instead of sending a Slack message. It means that instead of hiding behind emails, being present and available in difficult situations. It means taking off your headphones to engage with people. And, it means getting out of the convenience of your living room to create humanized touchpoints. 

If you want to lead, it’s not a god damn easy walk in the work-from-home park.

Could you imagine what the world would be like if some of our greatest leaders just said nah, putting on pants today and speaking to people in person is too much effort? 

I know for a fact that if Ghandi, an upperclass Indian lawyer, hadn’t take the initiative to live, walk and connect with India’s rural people—they would not have followed.

I know for a fact that if Steve Jobs had issued press releases about his new products instead of standing up in front of his devoted fans to unveil his latest inventions—his empire and legacy would not be as powerful as it still is.

And, I know for a fact that in my tiny leadership world, if I was at home sending Slack messages all day, my team would not stay as connected and committed to the vision of this company as they are. I would not know each of them on the personal level I currently do, or know what motivates and inspires them, right down to what they like to drink at happy hour.

So yes, people who choose to enjoy a work from anywhere approach will succeed. They will have fantastic time management skills. They will know how to communicate virtually. They will have all the tools and skills needed to do their jobs from anywhere in the world. They will have learned how to be an A class employee, and I’m going to love having them on my team.

What they won’t have learned from their sofa is how to be a leader.