This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
A day in the life of a leader can be very different from that of those being led. Filled with strategic decisions, and with a focus on the big picture, it is possible to forget what it is like for those bringing the vision to fruition. While it is easy to understand how a leader might lose perspective, it is crucial to regain it in order to be effective.
Knowing how things look from below as well as above is vital for two reasons. First, it enables a leader to more effectively motivate those being led. Second, it lets the leader see and understand things within their organization that are invisible from their own vantage point.
Motivation and imagination
The ability to imagine what life is like from another person's perspective is an essential business skill. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, thought this capacity was the foundation for capitalism itself. Calling it the faculty of sympathy, Smith observed that it was necessary for the pursuit of self-interest. For instance, if I am to sell you my product or service to benefit me, I have to know how it can look appealing to you; therefore, I have to be able to adopt your perspective. When marketing any of our wares to a potential customer, Smith says we "never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."
This is just as true when a leader sets out to motivate his or her employees. In order to understand what rewards will appeal, a leader must be able to see the world through a follower's eyes. This makes for more effective incentives and builds stronger relationships. It also guards against the blunders that alienate leaders from their followers; remember when John McCain couldn't remember how many houses he owned?
Though we are now more likely to call this ability empathy, recent research has shown that it is a key feature in the kinds of high-quality interactions between leaders and followers that make for more effective leadership. Empathy enables leaders to tailor their interactions for specific employees, because effective leadership strategies are not one size fits all.
The view from the front lines
Because a leader views things from above, there will be things on the ground that are vital for the leader to know but cannot be witnessed from his or her position. Therefore, it is important for a leader to actively ensure that the perspective from the ground reaches the C-suite. Otherwise, a leader might miss the trees for the forest.
Some things can only be fully known firsthand: the social climate in a particular department, the challenges facing a certain project, or the opportunities to be seized at a specific location. This idea, a version of standpoint theory, reminds us that the best way to know these sorts of things, short of experiencing them directly, is to ask the people who know them firsthand.
While the kind of sympathetic interactions required for a good relationship and successful motivation between a leader and follower are probably best had face-to-face, sometimes the best way to glean important information is through an anonymous path.
Companies have long understood that a whistle might not be blown and a scandal not prevented because the employees in the know fear reprisal. To ease this worry, many companies maintain both internal and third-party anonymous tip lines to report safety and compliance concerns, but avenues for anonymous reporting can be expanded beyond safety and compliance to encourage information of all sorts to be brought forward. This makes it more likely that the view from the ground will travel up, keeping leaders apprised of what is really going on in their organization. Lacking such a mechanism, leaders might be blindsided by a problem they could not have otherwise known was brewing or miss an opportunity they never realized was there.
In short, good leadership demands seeing the world through a follower's eyes. Do your best to imagine what it is like for your followers, but give them avenues to alert you to the things you couldn't even imagine.
David G. Dick, PhD, (@DavidGDick) is an assistant professor of philosophy and a Fellow of the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). In addition to his research in business ethics, he teaches a course on the philosophy of money.