John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team, demonstrated basketball techniques and plays on the court with his players. Jim Caldwell, the highly respected former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, used to go over the offensive game plan each week with his team, imitating a safety or a linebacker so that his quarterback would understand how to react. Coaching—and leading—in a business setting should be the same. Great coaching and leadership doesn’t happen through proclamation or mere observation. It happens through participation in the activities that your team is doing.
Proclamation: At the lowest level of involvement and effectiveness, proclamational leaders dictate how work should be done and how processes should operate, but they don’t join in the change. They continue to fight fires, attend executive briefings, and make decisions and manage the business from the executive conference room. These are the CEOs that are shocked (shocked!) at actual working conditions when they go on Undercover Boss.
Observation: Observational bosses are better than proclaimers. They recognize the need to go to the front lines where work is being done so that they can see problems and issues first-hand. However, because they don’t join in the actual work, they never experience the daily frustrations and obstacles that affect workers. And in general, they don’t understand the work well enough to help improve it.
Participation: At the highest level of effectiveness, participatory leaders not only get out to the front lines, they get involved in the work itself. They model the right behaviors and techniques, and they work shoulder-to-shoulder with employees to better understand what’s happening. (Within reason: no one needs a hospital CEO doing their coronary bypass.) As Art Byrne, former CEO of Wiremold says, “You can’t just send a memo. You’ve got to lead it. Show them by example, do it on the shop floor.”
Leadership is more than simply dictating memos from the C-suite on how things should be done. It’s more than observing the messy reality of what’s happening on the front lines (although that’s important). Leadership—great leadership— requires active engagement and participation.