We all have seen examples of good and bad leadership. After five years in the United States Navy and experience working for both government agencies and private businesses, here’s a key differentiator in the leaders whom I most respected: they go to the work.
Leaders who do this make a difference in the lives of the people they serve, and set an example for other leaders, like myself, to practice each day, too.
At my current job, I’m thankful and fortunate to follow in the footsteps of this example as well. The most effective leaders throughout history have relied on this very simple and powerful principle to guide their vision: they went, themselves, to see where the real work was taking place. By real work, I mean boots on the ground, the people who are in the field, doing things, executing the mission.
Witnessing this real work in person, and not creating a lot of pomp, circumstance, or fanfare before showing up to do that, helps leaders accomplish a few key things:
- See what’s really happening with the work.
- Gain insights about the work and everything connected to the work that they could only get from being present with the work.
- Demonstrate to everyone that they are in fact connected with the reality of what's happening with the work.
- Create confidence and support in others within the organization responsible for influencing and guiding the work.
- Provide clarity, perspective, and a safety net to contrast against other inputs (meetings, reports, metrics) about the work.
- Promoting extreme ownership of the work, and the team’s successes and failures, because the leader understands and can speak to everything that happens.
In most organizations, senior leaders have a team of direct reports, metrics, reports, meetings, and many other input signals, all intended to provide situational awareness, insights, and cues for leaders to make decisions and take action.
Often, however, those signals intended to provide efficient context and clarity aren’t enough to tell the whole story about what is real, and why. All too often, these inputs can, by themselves, paint an inaccurate or incomplete picture that puts the leader at risk of drawing flawed conclusions, or making poor decisions.
History is full of incidents where leaders lost it all because they relied solely on what was presented to them, and did not go to see for themselves. Going to the work is a critical protection against the risk of leading blind, losing confidence or trust, and even living in an ivory tower of fantasy.
The leader gains proper perspective for why either success or failure is happening, where, when, how, and who’s involved. One great example of this kind of hands-on leadership comes from decorated retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer Jocko Willink.
In this TED talk, Willink details the sobering story of the lessons he learned leading his team in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. After an operation he led went horribly wrong, Willink confronted his team to let them know only one person was responsible for the failures, he was.
In his book, Extreme Ownership, Jocko goes on to talk about what steps he personally took to ensure he went to the work, and was engaged in the reality of his command.
When Willink took such extreme ownership of his and his team’s actions and went to the work, he could see things he wouldn’t have seen if he led from a desk.
As a result, his team trusted him and each other even more, and were more willing to acknowledge their own failures, change, and overcome, so that they could together accomplish the mission.
People follow leaders who win, or who show they are moving on a path to winning when they fail. Going to the work lets winning leaders reinforce what needs to happen to keep winning, and lets losing leaders know what to change to start winning. Going to the work shows others that this leader is focused on helping the team win, and everyone wants to be a winner.
We can apply these hard-earned leadership principles whenever, wherever, and whoever we lead, whether a battlefield, restaurant kitchen, a sports team, or, like me, building world-class business apps with revolutionary tech.
As I serve our team at Skuid, I’d like to continue to challenge myself, and challenge others, to go to the work. Ready to learn more about the teams Nate leads now? Check out Skuid’s professional services team here.