You can project leadership in everything from how you dress and carry yourself to how you behave. When a leader embodies an image of everything an organization aspires to, she is well on her way to creating a legacy. Leaders can be visual images of where they’re directing the evolution of their enterprise. At times, they are visualizations of something greater than themselves. Sometimes leaders embody vision. Leaders rise to this challenge in many ways. One way is simple: They walk around.
When employees see a leader routinely walking around, listening and being available and open, they see a leader in motion. They know that transformation based on the value of everyone’s contribution is authentic. Walking around is a way for leaders to bond with employees and communicate one-on-one with people at all levels of the organization.
Many leaders postpone walking around and being available to talk to staff. They consider it a luxury and feel as though they don’t have time for it. Most leaders agree that walking around can have a powerful impact, but almost as many make excuses or put it off. Walking around is a way to connect with others, but some leaders have a hard time doing it. They must dive deep into themselves and look at their resistance to such a valuable practice.
Walking around is a leadership practice that can be associated with the interpersonal mastery expected of leaders. It’s also a good example of how personal mastery must precede the development of other skills. When you’re pressed to step far out of your comfort zone to do things unique to a leader, you may have a hard time finding support. Perhaps no one else is thinking at that level. Isolation can set in. But you can choose to transform the separation into an opportunity, to discover more about yourself, and to turn to mentors. Mentors may be our contemporaries or towering historical figures whose examples inspire us.
When it comes to the art of walking around, Sir Winston Churchill is a good example.
As England’s first lord of the admiralty from 1911 to 1915, Churchill visited more ships and naval facilities than any first lord before or since. Between 1911 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he visited more than 50 ships, as well as numerous harbor and shipyard sites. This practice was unheard of in military leadership or political life, and it ignored deeply ingrained social sanctions against members of the upper class mixing with those of the lower classes.
But Churchill made it a regular practice to do just that. He walked around. He listened. He allowed himself to be led. He learned how the Royal Navy operated down to its daily routines. His presence elevated the navy. Churchill didn’t hold back. He made a habit of arranging interviews with junior officers and enlisted personnel. Top brass did not approve of his giving ear to every level of worker, but the practice served his purpose of gathering information. “He had a yarn with nearly all the lower deck men of the ship’s company,” the Daily Express newspaper wrote of a submarine visit in 1912, “asking why, wherefore, and how everything was done. All the sailors ‘go the bundle’ on him, because he makes no fuss and takes them by surprise. He is here, there, everywhere.”
Churchill’s openness with officers and enlisted men was effective for gathering information, but it would not have been possible unless he was willing to take action based on his values. Despite pressure to be constrained by outdated social mores, he acted on his belief that the safety and success of the men was his priority. His intention was clear. In his role as first lord of the admiralty, he made no distinction among men. Instead, he made all men distinct.