Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Leading From Your Desk

Throughout my career, I have heard many people profess that you can't lead from behind your desk.  I've thought that to be true, but I must admit that I became less and less convinced each year and now I see how shortsighted such a philosophy truly is.  Yes, technology allows us to do more from our desk, but that is not the reason I believe the argument is flawed and grounded in legacy thought.  There are lots of personal definitions of what it means to lead, but for the sake of argument let's use "to guide, to direct, to influence", as this stream of consciousness is more about the HOW than the WHAT.  We can point to many great leaders who lead from the front, lead at the deckplate, and lead through presence.  None of us would argue the fact that leadership through presence is most effective and serves as the foundation for one to lead even from afar.  But what about virtual presence?

As we migrate from tactical leader to operational leader and further to strategic leader, our sphere of influence grows beyond our ability to lead soley through physical presence.  In fact, I am of the mind that truly strategic leaders can only be effective if we choose to lead even from behind our desk.  I believe true leaders educate, communicate, remove barriers, and create opportunities for individuals within the team and the team as a whole.  I offer that all of these can also be done from behind the desk and sometimes with greater effectiveness.

Just last week, among other things, I've observed the following:

- One Four Star Admiral write a single letter to a Four Star General that has generated much action, focused the efforts of many, and reallocated numerous resources
- Peers remove barriers by engaging seniors via phone
- Juniors create opportunities by making a case for the need for a conference by writing a message
- Our Senior Enlisted Leader effectively communicate a way ahead after listening to issues brought before her while sitting at her desk
- Personally educated others by writing blogposts, book abstracts, and sharing operational context using the written word

Like many leaders, I did not sit behind my desk all week.  I was physically present.  In fact, it's the physical presence aspect of leading I enjoy most.  However, I in no way stopped leading when I sat behind my desk, called a colleague, or opened my laptop at home.  The thought that we can't lead from behind our desk is simply short sighted and false.  The truth is we can lead even from behind our desk, we must lead even from behind our desk, and, yes, sometimes it makes most sense to get behind the desk in order to lead.  The greatest form of leadership is leadership through influence and I have yet to find another location where my sphere is greater than when I am sending e-mail, participating in a telephone/video conference, or posting on the internet.

The need to lead through presence is both clear and obvious, but the true leader finds a way to lead even, and sometimes especially, from behind the desk.


  1. As always, you've written a well thought out blog post. I think most people will agree that you can lead from behind your desk, especially as you have expressed it so well here. I think the 'leading from behind your desk' argument was more about people who refuse to move away from their desk and get out into the organization. If I can go back to 'the old days', our commands were split between operational sites and admin sites. I can remember in Hanza, Okinawa (for example) in the 1980s, the Sailors never saw their CO. He never made the trip from the command suite to the operational site, ever. You'll see the same thing aboard some of our ships where the skipper is locked down in his stateroom and never gets out and about.

    Your point is well taken, though. One can lead from anywhere. Better yet, one can lead from everywhere - even from behind your desk.

    Nice job.

  2. From 79-81 (when I was there), the Hanza CO's office was inside the CDAA and connected to the operations building. The two I served under there were out and about quite often...including when I the second one posted for his first Article 15 proceedings. I was there too...front and center:-)

  3. Mike, thanks for the comment and the cross-link! My feeling is that too many of us view leadership as a position. As you well know, we are surrounded by leadership opportunities and too many fail to see them. I prefer to associate with those who not only find these opportunities, but create more opportunities. Others can sit at their desks and admire their positional authority, as they watch opportunities pass them and their team by. I am heading back to a staff this fall, where I will lose my current leadership position, yet I will be surrounded by arguably even more opportunity.