Leaders, pretend you are in an office for a second. You’re at your desk near those you lead, filling out a report or working on a powerpoint or typing up an email you’re going to send to the team. It’s time sensitive. Someone on your team walks up to you and starts asking about a detail of the org you know more about than them. You acknowledge their existence (congrats to them!), and continue typing away while they ask a question. Internally and perhaps without thought, you’ve decided you can keep working and multitask through this interaction. A few minutes of ‘conversation’ pass and after having to ask them to repeat themselves a few times, they thankfully seem to have gotten enough info out of you and walk back to their desk. You continue working, perhaps half noticing that you weren’t really sure what they were asking about.
You know who did notice? That team member.
You’re in a remote call with your team. You’ve got a few other tabs open during the meeting, and perhaps your phone nearby. Throughout the call, whenever a topic that isn’t that interesting occurs you tab over or snag your phone. Normal stuff, we all do it, right? Because you are the leader it does mean that sometimes you get hit with the, “Hello? You there?” and you apologize and ask someone to repeat themselves. Also pretty normal, the meeting concludes and you not only ran that meeting but also finished 6 out of 7 tweets in a chain about fish reproduction by a funny scientist. Not too bad, though you might vaguely remember that some stuff may have been discussed that you weren’t as present for.
You know who definitely remembers? Your team.
The lesson “Be present with the person in front of you” is one of many that I draw from the example of Christ. Regardless of whether you believe in the truth of His claims or not, there is little doubt that He was one of the most effective leaders in history.
And there’s this weird thing about Jesus. He often is recorded taking time with the people that don’t matter, and not doing the things everyone expected Him to be doing. When a wealthy and important man needed a daughter healed, on the way Jesus stopped to have a conversation with a societal outcast. When people were being hushed for being annoying, Jesus sought them out. When children were frustrating adults, Jesus told them to come to Him. He regularly chose to be present with those seeking His time even when those around Him thought it was the most unimportant thing to be doing.
As leaders, we definitionally have to be aware of the future. It’s a core part of leadership, because you need to move towards a goal or a vision of the future. Unfortunately, it is easy for us to get lost in that far-thinking place, and ignore what is going on around us. It can become our normal.
Be careful of this default stance! It is as important for us to be present with those we are leading right now as it is for us to create a picture of the future. Our pride and self-importance tell us that what we’re doing is more important. Maybe we’re paid more, and know more about where the company is trying to go, and we have so many things we need to get done – and so little time! The idea of spending precious working moments with the ‘random’ individuals who want to talk to us feels like a waste of time.
It’s not. Each of those conversations is an opportunity to show you care about the humans you lead. It’s an opportunity to humble yourself and let their worries and thoughts and joys be more important than your own. To be a good and moral leader is to carry a burden, and part of that burden is the prioritization of others over yourself.
So when someone walks up to you to talk while you are doing something, don’t multitask. Take the time to stop what you’re doing, turn to face them, and be present. By the way, this isn’t a call to lose complete control of your schedule or be run roughshod over by anyone seeking your time. If you have a meeting to go to or something crucial, be honest with them, but then find them later! Prioritize being present for a focused conversation with the people you lead. If the right time isn’t now, make sure it is soon!
Likewise, if you’re in a remote call, stay with the conversation. Yes, other tabs exist. Yes, the phone beeped in a new message from who knows who. Yes, there’s an interesting chain of tweets on fish reproduction. It can wait. It can all wait. If the meeting is so bad or irrelevant that there is nothing you are getting or providing, remember that you’re a leader! Either fix it or stop going. But if you choose to go, if you get to attend a meeting because you do have value to add, then be a part of it and make it better. That’s what you do as a leader. Through service, presence, and creativity, you make the world of tomorrow better than the world of today for yourself, your team, and your audience.
Remember the examples of the best leaders from your past, or Christ, or choose to be the example if none of those are relevant to you. Your ‘leaders’ who never had time for you probably didn’t change you for the better either. Imitate the good. Don’t get stuck in the future when you can serve someone right now. Be present with the person in front of you.