Approachable Leadership — Be a Beacon Not an Island

by Jennifer Miller on March 13, 2014

in Business Management, Communication, Leadership

Victoria fisgard lighthouseAs a leader, how do you let your team know you are available to them? Sure, you’ve probably said (more times than you can count) “I’m here if you need me.”  That’s a good start, but is there a way you could visually send that message? Mr. People Equation sent me a New York Times article  about design consultancy IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett.

According to the essay, Mr. Bennett had a unique approach to connecting more fully with employees. Tired of the constant crush of back-to-back meetings, and feeling isolated from all but a handful of people, Bennett set up his office in the hub of IDEO: the IT help desk. Then he hung a large Icelandic fish retrofitted into a light above his desk. Bennett says, “When the light is on, it’s a signifier to the office that I am there, and a symbol to me that I should be accessible, available and approachable.”

Now, it may be completely unthinkable in your corporate culture (not to mention sort of gross) to hang a fish light to show your team you’re available. Yet it’s worth considering: in what ways do you show people that you are not only available, but approachable?

A leader can be physically available (“our one-to-one is at 3:00 PM today”) but still unapproachable (distracted, critical or sarcastic.) Unapproachable leaders are an island—remote and inaccessible.

The best leaders are a beacon for their team. Like a lighthouse’s bright light, they guide people safely into port and provide hope for what awaits onshore. As my colleague Victorio Milian told me, “I believe a leader is approachable when I can talk to him/her and not regret doing so.” Sounds like an excellent Approachability Litmus Test to me!

Here are some ways to be more approachable as a leader:

  1. When meeting with people, remove distractions. Silence the cell phone and put it away.
  2. Take a deep breath before responding to inflammatory statements and reply, “I’m curious, what leads you to say that?”
  3. Practice genuine humility. People can spot “humble bragging” a mile away.
  4. Smile.
  5. Watch for verbal “erasers” that negate a positive statement. “That’s a good idea, but . . .”
  6. Be sincere. If you don’t think the idea is “great” don’t label it as such. Search for an adjective that is more appropriate, but not damaging. Remember, to be an encouraging beacon, you must “THINK” before you speak.
  7. Don’t take yourself so seriously. One of the best bosses I ever had always told me, “I take my job very seriously, but not myself.” Learning to laugh at your shortcomings is one of the most effective ways to remove barriers between you and others.
  8. Listen.
  9. Build a reputation for keeping confidences. If an employee shares something with you in confidence it is a show of trust on his/her part.
  10. Tell the truth, keep your promises. Your credibility depends on it and people won’t come to you if they think you’re not trustworthy.

Take a moment and think about your last handful of interactions with your team. Were you a beacon or an island?

You may also like my post How leaders can create space for creativity, communication and connection which ran earlier this week on the Smartblog on Leadership site.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Miller March 13, 2014 at 4:30 pm


Welcome to the People Equation! You offer up yet another viewpoint of accessibility – is a manager willing roll up his or her sleeves and pitch in? Great insight!

Jennifer Miller March 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm


Perhaps you’ve already written about this (if so, I missed it) but I would be fascinated to read more case studies of leaders moving their desks to the center of the action. If you do write it, would you please let me know? That represents a huge reversal in leadership practices.

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