Leadership Loitering

by William Keyser (aka The Startup Owl), Managing Director of WorkSavvy LLC

Loitering suggests standing idly about or lingering aimlessly, but how about loitering with intent? In most western countries you would be moved along by the police if you were observed loitering with intent. The assumption would be that you were on the point of committing a misdemeanor.

If a leader loiters with intent, it would be fair to assume that she is on the point of noticing something wrong. It is easier to do than intending to find something good. But all too often, leaders are so wrapped-up in guiding or directing others that they do not see what is right in front of their nose.

Seeing Something Good

On the other hand, when a leader does loiter with intent to see something good, chances are that she will. Then she would be wise to sponsor more of it. Leadership loitering with intent to see good makes some assumptions:

  • without direction people will do good things;
  • leaders cannot be responsible for all that is good;
  • leaders who observe are likely to learn;
  • leaders who work exclusively through their reports get filtered facts;
  • leaders who go outside the hierarchy will connect with reality;
  • the horse’s mouth is to be found where the rubber meets the road;
  • criticism is easier than congratulation, unfortunately.

Dr Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, the $2 billion software company believes in management by loitering. “I will talk to anybody I want to, when I want to,” he says. Not for him the easier option of sitting back in his office, waiting for the organizational chart to do the work for him.

It’s a common management trait, he says, “to try and control the information flow through you.” Goodnight says, “95 percent of my assets drive out the gate every evening. It’s my job to maintain a work environment that keeps those people coming back every morning. Not surprisingly his company has a 4% staff turnover by comparison with the industry norm of 20%.

Loitering Outside the Firm

Of course, effective leadership loitering does not only take place within the firm. It takes place outside, too. Way outside. Not just by visiting investors, customers and suppliers, but also different markets, different sectors, as well as government, non-profits, activists for and against you.

When you set about to look for something specifically, chances are high that you’ll miss obvious serendipities that just are there without purpose, but make a good contribution to the organization. It may be a matter of making space for good things to happen.

Loitering and Littering

There is another leadership practice you can adopt: leadership loitering and littering.

When you are loitering, especially when you are not recognized, is to do something unintentionally on purpose. make some casual comment and pay attention to the reaction you get. Do something that gets in the way of people doing their jobs and observe how they get round the problem you have created. Shut things that are open or open things that are closed and determine whether anybody reacts.

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