One of the most important aspects of leadership is often the most overlooked. It takes time, it takes self-control, it takes patience. It is the art of observation. Observant leadership can be effective if it is nurtured, practiced, and intentional.
One of the best ways to understand observational leadership is by using the five senses: hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch. Each of the senses opens doors of observation that can increase the effectiveness of leadership and the awareness of the leader.
First is the sense of hearing. Observant leaders have active ears. Active listening is an art not seen very often behind the meeting table. Too many leaders like to, want to, demand to speak. There is a tendency among leaders to yield to the extroverted mistake of quickly entering the fray of ideas with their “correct” perspective and their “wise” counsel. An observant leader practice the intentional art of being quiet and keeping his/her mouth shut. By listening the leader has the opportunity to evaluate the skills and abilities of those around him/her. Who has good ideas? Who rambles without much content? Who expresses creativity? Who has difficulties with change?
Listen to employees, board members, middle managers, those above you, those who report to you. Listen in the hall ways, listen at the coffee pot, listen during casual conversations, listen in the break room. Listening does not mean believing, but listening does mean evaluating. An observant leader leads with his/her ears – what can you learn through listening?
Second is the sense of sight. Our eyes are the windows to reality. Just as listening is increased by being quiet, so seeing is enhanced as we minimize our tongues and give our full attention to what we see. An observant leader has active eyes, for there is a difference between seeing and observing. Observation involves analysis, synthesis, logic, induction and deduction. As Sherlock Holmes notes in A Scandal in Bohemia, “You see, but you do not observe.”
An observant leader watches the dynamics of relationships, the body language involved in dialogue, the actions and the reactions of others. Many watch the primary movements and behaviors of others, but the observant leader attempts to watch the secondary and even the tertiary perspectives and reactions to decisions, discussions, and suggestions. What was the athletic directors response to the principal’s announcement? What did the faces of the administrative assistances communicate around the lunch table? How attentive were the administration when the CFO gave his report?
Third is the sense of taste. As an observant leader has active tastebuds. As the leader walks the footprint of the organization, what flavors does he/she taste? Is the environment filled with the sweetness of unity, or the sourness of discontentment, or the spices of creativity? Just as the tastebuds in our mouth shout out with messages of saltiness or pleasure, so the inner sense of taste must communicate to the observant leader.
Every organization has a culture and a climate that can be recognized and felt. I remember going to my church for the first time. As I opened the front door, there were several people with smiles and words of welcome. I was greeted by many others and made to feel right at home from the very first service. My clothes did not matter, my age did not matter, my newness did not matter. The church tasted like grace and the good news. An observant leader must taste the culture of the organization, he/she must take note of the climate and taste the message it proclaims.
Fourth is smell. The observant leader has an active nose. If you work in a factory, there is most likely a distinctive smell about the organization. If you report to a school every day, there is a special smell about the classroom. If you work outside, there are certain smells associated with your environment. These are not the smells that I have in mind. The old expression, “Something smell a little fishy to me,” is more aligned to the leader’s nose. What does honesty smell like? What odor does discord and animosity emit? As you take a huge breathe in your organization does it smell healthy, and alive? As you take puffs of air do you find yourself coughing with smells of arrogance and power. An observant leader can smell a bully a mile away, and can enjoy the soft fragrance of rose on the manager’s desk.
Some smell are very dangerous – the smell of nature gas can explode if not addressed. Some scents can calm the heart – the aroma of lavender is a stress reliever. An observant leader must practice in order to discern odor from aroma. He/she must sensitize his/her nose to understand what is fishy and what is savory.
Fifth is touch. I am not talking about group hugs or high fives after a meeting (although these are not bad things). An observant leader is an active kinesthetic leader. Let me use three colloquial phrases to communicate the concept. One, A leader must be willing to” put his toe in the water.” An observant leader does not jump in without investigation, but he/she must be aware and anxious to test the temperature and nature of the water. Is this the time? Is the opportunity hot and the environment ready to jump in or is the timing cold and unproductive? Gut feelings can be right on, but a quick toe in the water can confirm the reality of choice. Two, a leader knows how to “touch the sore spots.” During a physical exam, the doctor is trained to poke and prod to check for sore spots, indicators of physical problems. An observant leader needs to know how to touch the sore spots to gage the health of the organization. Wounds that are left to fester can cause illness, amputation and even death. Three, an effective leader keeps “his finger on the pulse.” The touch of the leader must go to the heart of the organization. The leader must not be distracted by peripheral issues or programs outside the mission of the organization, lest he/she lose the pulse of the team’s purpose and the overall health of the company.
An effective leader is an observant leader. These skills of observation are not easy to obtain or maintain but they are critical to helping an organization grow and thrive. These skills can be crippled and easily forgotten if we talk too much and fail to listen, see, taste, smell, and touch.
Photos: ears – Top 10 facts about ears | 2013-10-23 | 438603 | Express.co.uk; eyes- Easily recognizing prominent eyes (advisemystyle.com); taste – 10 Fun Facts About Your Tongue and Taste Buds (onhealth.com); smells – 5 Simple Natural Ways to Get Rid of Cooking Smells – Cook Taste Eat; pulse – Western Sydney Business Connection – Membership (wsbc.org.au)