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Twenty Steps Ahead: Leading at Just the Right Distance
Zeke is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s very cute and endearing, but he can really be dumb as a post sometimes. Case in point: he can get lost in our house. To be fair, many times when he’s turned around, it’s not because he doesn’t know where he is, it’s because he doesn’t know where I am.
Our staircase is in the center of the house and is split into two sections with a landing in between. You walk up, turn ninety degrees right on the landing, walk a few feet, turn ninety degrees again, and walk the rest of the way up. If I’m upstairs and I call Zeke, he has trouble triangulating where I am. Did my voice come from upstairs? Or from the other room? He’ll run halfway up to the landing and wait. When I call him again
he knows I’m upstairs, but now my voice is coming from the direction where, if he ran toward me, he would be descending the stairs. Now he’s completely baffled. Should he run toward my voice and down to the first level, or away from my voice and up to the second level (where he now knows I am)? It’s just
so confusing! I have to literally walk down to the landing and guide him up, so that he can follow me in the right direction, and the stairs line up with the path to my voice. Like I said, he’s not brilliant.
The same thing happens when we are out for a hike. The best places are off-leash areas where the dogs can run free without danger of traffic or unsuspecting pedestrians. Many of these locations are in the woods, composed of a network of small footpaths. Taking Paco and Zeke on the trails is predictable. Paco zips back and forth, running a hundred feet ahead, then coming back and checking on us before running ahead again. He usually gets twice the walk we do. Zeke usually falls behind, engrossed in the smell of some patch of ground. For most of the walk, we don’t have to worry about the dogs. They run off and play and then catch up with us again. Yet we have to take care when there’s a fork in the path. Paco is usually attentive enough so that if he’s ahead of us on the wrong fork he zips back and finds us. Zeke gets lost. Since he lags behind, he doesn’t see which path we took. His solution is to panic, choose a direction, and just sprint.
We first observed this on the trails at Fort Funston in San Francisco. This park remains our all-time favorite place for dog walking. Stretching out on rolling cliffs and dunes over the Pacific Ocean, the paved paths are a magnet for dog owners. The dogs socialize while the people get a workout and a stunning
One afternoon we were hiking there with the dogs, and Zeke fell behind. We didn’t notice for a few minutes, and when we did turn to look for him, we could barely see him around a bend. At that moment he looked up from the root he was sniffing and realized he had lost us. We saw the panic set in as he frantically scanned everyone around, not finding us among them. Within ten seconds he simply chose a direction (the wrong one) and took off at full speed. There he went, sprinting his muscular little body off into the distance, his head glancing at every person he passed.
Leaders need to be just far enough ahead of their followers to motivate them, inspire them, and show them the direction, but not so far that nobody can see them. This quote by Georg Brandes, an influential Danish literary critic, sums it up nicely: “The crowd will follow a leader who marches twenty steps in advance, but if he is a thousand steps in front of them, they do not see him and do not follow him.”
When we were a hundred feet in front of Zeke, he was able to follow us. Once we got too far ahead of him, we lost him. When a leader is no longer in sight, some followers will behave as Zeke did—they will choose a direction and just run. Others will sit down and wait. In any case, the leader will no longer be a leader as there is no one following him. In many cases, the “distance” between a leader and followers is not literal. It may be the distance between the mindset of the two. It may be a gap in vision. For instance, Steve Jobs may have lost some followers who did not grasp his vision of personal computing.
Transformational leaders are aware that while they have to push the envelope they still need to communicate a future that followers can identify with and understand. So how do leaders provide a path for followers to show them how to get from point A to point B? I have to meet Zeke halfway down the stairs to correctly guide him, and it’s not too different for the leader of a (human) team. Leaders meet their followers halfway and provide them structure and direction. They initiate structure by putting organizational elements in place and clarifying vision and goals toward which everyone should strive. Initiating structure (along with consideration) has been found to be one of the most important elements of effective leadership. It consists of organizing and communicating within an organization how work is supposed to flow and what tools, policies, and procedures are available to guide that workflow.
In general, initiating structure means making clear to everyone how tasks are supposed to get done, providing a path of here to there. For instance, a company goal may be to increase gross revenue. OK, how? Make more sales calls? Make the same number but make them better? Attend more networking events? Put money into research and development of new products? New services? Who should they ask to clarify? When left without any intermediate direction and structure, employees have to guess for themselves how best to achieve this collective goal of increased gross revenue. When this happens, inefficiencies result. If a leader steps in and initiates structure, efforts can be aligned. The key is to lead at just the right distance—not so close as to be micromanaging but not so far as to be vague and unclear.