Toddlers play a game where they put their hands over their eyes and magically disappear, only to reappear once those little paws are removed. Their invisibility hinges on their perception of the world and themselves in relation to that world. “I can see you, so you can see me; I can’t see you, so you can’t see me.” Sometimes as leaders we seem drawn into a similar game.
One of the encouragements of modern leaders is that they be visible. That visibility is in part about their physical presence – being around the school or workplace, at the gate, in classrooms and offices, at functions, out in the local community. The leader is expected to be seen.
But it’s not only about social-page sightings. Much more is expected of a leader than being around the place and socialising. The leader’s demeanour will be noted; the gravitas s/he brings on some occasions and the levity on others. They are expected not only to be noted but to be noteworthy. The leader is expected to have presence.
The way a leader behaves is under constant and sometimes critical scrutiny. People are watching and making judgements, especially about the congruence between words and deeds. The underlying assumption is that leaders should reflect the values they espouse, and rightly so. The leader is expected to be authentic.
Still not quite the full picture, a further implication of visibility is accessibility. Leaders need to be approachable and available when needed. That sense of presence should not be a shield. The leader is expected to be accessible.
And finally, with accessibility comes a willingness to listen to others, even where there may be contrary views or conflicting values. It is about listening to the point of acceptance of other possible ways. The leader is expected to be open-minded.
Which is all well and good, but in reality, things get complicated. Your perception of yourself and others’ interpretation may differ. You think you are being a visible leader, but others may view it differently.
Even physically, when you’re in your office, you’re not out and about in classrooms or staff-rooms, and vice versa. “I only had this time free and when I looked for you in your office, you weren’t there!” may sound familiar; the accusative implication being that you weren’t available. You may in fact have been working with staff, meeting parents or visiting classrooms, but… “You weren’t there!”
The other side of the conundrum is that when you think you can’t be seen you may well be. The public eye has 20/20 vision when it comes to leader spotting. In the modern world, social media has served to amplify what was ever thus – people observe other people and draw their own conclusions in light of their personal worldview.
All in all, being seen, a presence, authentic, accessible and open-minded, and all the time, and effectively – that’s no mean feat.
So what can leaders do about their visibility? In my view, mostly and necessarily it’s about investing the time so you are indeed visible, but partly too it’s about communicating and partly it’s about managing expectations, your own and others. Be integrally involved in the life of the school or organisation and be genuinely open to others; that is, invest the time. Let people know where you are, who you are, why you’re doing something, why you need some space; that is, communicate. Be honest with yourself and others about what’s possible for you and, importantly, why; that is, manage expectations.
Your aim is to ensure everyone understands the game: “Now you see me, now you don’t – but I’m still visible.”
Apparently baby raccoons have a similar behaviour, they cover their eyes and since they cannot see, therefore they can’t be seen. That aside, your post articulates so well the challenges for any leader to be authentic….thankfully so many rise so well to that challenge.