Leaders are Approachable, Whatever That Means

Leaders are Approachable, Whatever That Means

This is the next in the series on Leadership lexicon – the definition of words we use to describe leaders. Ultimately, if we understand the constituent components of leadership, we will better understand leadership. See an earlier post explaining this here.

Today we will talk about what it means to say a leader is approachable. In Sustained Leadership WBS I define it in this way:

WBS Dictionary: A person is approachable when they greet people with a smile rather than a scowl, when they laugh easily, and when they take a personal interest in people. While some will speak to their “open-door policy,” the facts suggest that they are less interested in actual visitors than they are on being perceived as approachable. Like the other traits listed here, these must be genuine. Not everyone takes to these traits naturally. Some must work very hard to be approachable rather than just appearing approachable. This element has much in common with 4.0 Communication in that approachable people have learned to communicate effectively with words and non-verbal signs. They spark communication and participate actively in the process. They understand active listening (4.4.5) and can lead a conversation through the use of good questions (4.4.1) and the ability to communicate with stories (4.4.2). Approachable people lower their guard even with strangers, and while this makes them more vulnerable, a sustained leader’s self-worth is based on their own sense of self, not that imposed by others from the outside.

It is More than Being Nice

In part, an approachable person is perceived as “nice.” Historically there has been a leadership theory of command and control where the boss (notice I am not saying a leader) enforces compliance with their edicts by yelling loudly and diminishing the members of the team. Many have experienced this boss. No one likes this boss. Historically such bosses were promoted because their rigid adherence to “my way or the highway” did manage to produce results against what the higher-ups had dictated to be relevant metrics. (The fallacy of this statement will be discussed some other time.) This in turn led to a high turnover, the retention of sheep, lambs, and turkeys rather than eagles and lions, and an entire generation that was never taught what a sustained leader really was. This is tragic on many levels personally, professionally, and societally.

The Leader’s Role

Leaders have many roles including and certainly not limited to, mentor, visionary, communication representative to diverse stakeholders, and teacher. None of these is enhanced by being a nasty SOB. Psychologically such bosses were most likely disgusted with their own life and had decided to share the pain and suffering. That is no excuse. The adage that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar applies, but it ignores the fact that you can attract the most with manure and dead bodies. Sadly, these bosses slung a lot of manure and left many dead bodies (the careers of their team members most notably), in their wake. Being a genuinely nice person that the team members find approachable, getting to know the team on an individual basis, and tailoring their interaction with others in a way that serves the other person’s best interests will cause many to be attracted to them. They are approachable.

Being Too Nice

There are occasions when people can be too nice. It might be because they are insecure and want others to like them. It might be their nature, or it might be what they were taught in a leadership seminar. Giving in to what others want might “buy” them some friends. Accumulating friends is not typically the goal of a sustained leader. Recall that in “Relationships” we discussed that relationships are important, but the quality of the relationship is far more important than the quantity. Giving in to people may cause you to be perceived as a push-over. People will not follow you to contribute to the vision, but to see what they can derive from your lax attitude.

When you have the expectation that the team must be constant learners and work hard for the accomplishment of a vision to which everyone on the team subscribes, you set expectations for the team. You being nice to them is a strong relationship builder. Your expectations of them to pull their weight and not simply be a brown-noser aiming for their next promotion will often weed them out of the team. It is up to the sustained leader to understand what motivates others, particularly those with nefarious intent, and remove them before they negatively affect the entire team.

Norm Augustine has been quoted as saying, “Never shoot the messenger; it dries up the supply of messengers.” A nice boss will always welcome truthful messengers whether they carry good or bad news. The sustained leader will be strongly benefited by getting the raw facts from a team that is unafraid of the mood swings they might encounter from the team leader. Encourage people to bring truthful information forward, pose reasonable requests, and entertain a discussion on most any topic relevant to the team and its effective operation. This is the approachable boss and most likely a sustained leader.

This material is derived from the book Sustained Leadership WBS and is found in section Approachable.

With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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