The invisibility cloak: Preferred attire for leaders everywhere


I’m sure anyone reading this post has heard the phrase “management by wandering around.” The idea is that leaders and managers should get out and circulate among employees in an informal way, which theoretically promotes morale and enhances productivity. If done without the proper underpinnings, however, it can come off as insincere, snoopish. People may think you are just trying out the latest fad because you don’t know what you are doing, or that you are checking up on them because you don’t trust them. If you want to adopt this tactic – and I’m about to argue several good reasons for doing so – you need also develop a deeper mindset of visibility. This refers to the attitude, approach, and motivations that drive the “wandering” so that it comes off authentically and yields the outcomes you are after. It means having a comfort with and a desire to see and be seen by the people with whom you want to accomplish great things.

Leadership visibility is about building relationships and fostering trust with employees. It is the opposite of being “the man behind the curtain.” The risk of being an executive suite shut-in is that in the absence of data, the human mind is quite adept at filling in the gaps and forging patterns where they don’t necessarily exist. Because our minds have a predisposition toward the negative, these fillers will be more likely to be based on employees’ fears and concerns. In other words, when they aren’t hearing from and seeing you, employees won’t automatically jump to the conclusion that you are an amazing leader who is off doing Very Important Things for the company and their own betterment. More likely, they will worry that you are absent because something is wrong, or that leadership doesn’t care about “the little people.” The benefit of these small excursions into the office space or out in the field is that they help a leader keep a pulse on the culture of the organization and the concerns of employees. Is there a positive buzz, or do people seem dampened down? It allows you to gather information you will not get through more formal means, and gives another avenue for information to be passed back up the chain. Importantly, short but frequent “side conversations” help people stay motivated, checked in, and in alignment with the organization’s strategies and goals.

We have talked time and again about how people need to feel included in the direction of the organization – they want to understand how and why their work has purpose, meaning, and value. This knowledge helps them forge connections between their actions, their relationships, and the organizations aims and therefore has a huge impact on engagement, creativity, productivity. Leaders cannot discount the enormous role they play in fostering these feelings among employees. But you cannot do this if you are not seen, heard, felt, perceived. Recent research on team effectiveness shows that the amount of face-to-face interaction team members have with each other has a dramatic impact on the team’s functioning. Leaders must set the stage for the energy and engagement in their teams by modeling this behavior.

So what’s with the invisibility cloaks then? Why do we have television shows like “Undercover Boss” in which a CEO sneaks around in their business to find out what they could have found out by being present and visible day to day? There are likely several reasons. The most obvious explanation is that leaders are busy! Making unstructured time to connect with employees seems like a waste of time when your agenda is already full to bursting. There are also more subtle reasons. Many leaders doubt their ability to influence without position power, and so behave in ways that make their position at the top of the food chain salient to others in subtle ways, including keeping a physical distance. Others may have difficulty knowing how to cultivate effective work relationships while balancing the personal vs. professional aspects, as we have talked about here. Further, during periods of stress or conflict, when leaders especially need to be visible, it is not uncommon to instead hunker down and focus on tasks and retreat from criticism. Lastly, personality plays a role. Not all leaders are created equal – I may have the ability to craft a vision and top-notch strategic plan but have discomfort showing emotion, whether celebrating good news or communicating bad news, which hampers my ability to make real connections with people. Natural introverts especially may have a harder time overcoming these road blocks to visibility.

Being visible doesn’t just mean literally being seen by employees, of course, but that is a very key part of it. A real leader is seen as a person, not a position, so if you want to be perceived as a leader, you need to be perceived as a person. That demands actual human interaction. Your presence is important, because as we know, far more information is communicated in a conversation than words alone afford. Do you look at people when they are speaking to you, or do you make them feel invisible by checking your phone or email? Do you balance talking with listening? What questions do you ask, and how do you respond when asked tough questions? Visible leaders are both physically present, as well as mindfully present when interacting with others.

Part of visibility concerns being seen as open for connection. This requires cultivating a culture where people feel like leadership is approachable, not existing in ivory towers or their own wing of the building where lesser beings are unwelcome. Visible leaders create opportunities for relationship building, running the gamut from regular all-hands meetings to, yes, wandering around for informal one-on-ones. Have you inadvertently created policies or traditions that interfere with this? In what ways do you communicate openness to new ideas and criticism and actively seek them out? Make sure you don’t use these interactions to critique employees, but do be willing to hear criticisms and problems. Show non-defensiveness and a willingness to follow up on what you hear and learn.

Being present and accounted for in the eyes of employees has a powerful and two-fold impact. First, it creates opportunities for information sharing and the fine-tuning of alignments. But second and perhaps more importantly, it humanizes you and the organization, and it humanizes the employee who now also feels seen and heard. Ideally, when people think of you, they connect with you and relate that to their own connections to and within the organization, which breeds energy and engagement. That is the value of visibility and “wandering around.”

“Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.” –Lao Tzu