I’ve noticed that leaders often have very interesting notions of what constitutes ‘leadership.’ Some managers view leadership as something that exists outside and apart from them. They think of leaders as only those who make the grand speeches and set sweeping agendas. So, often, when my clients’ jobs don’t require this sort of large-scale thought and action, they dismiss the reality of their role and squander their potential for impact. If you asked them, they’d say that they are being appropriately modest. But I’d say they are missing the boat.
On the other hand, some of my clients are the speech-makers and agenda-setters. They have their eye on the far horizon and the big picture. They identify themselves as leaders, but don’t see their small actions as having anything to do with the task of leading. By focusing on the large perspective and the grand act, they’d say that they are maintaining necessary focus. But in the process, they are overlooking the potential for impact that’s right under their noses.
What’s the limitation of both these points of view: either that we are too ‘small’ to have real impact or too important to worry about the impact of small things? Both perspectives overlook what I call the “potent pixels” of leadership. Potent pixels are the small details of behavior and demeanor that your followers are watching like hawks. They are the undramatic, often unconscious gestures upon which others determine your character, form your reputation and decide whether or not to trust you with their loyalty. Whether or not you’re paying attention to the pixels, they are absolutely forming the picture of your leadership.
What are some examples of potent pixels that you may not be leaning (and leading) into? It’s what you do (or don’t do) once you’ve made a commitment, however insignificant. How you respond (or don’t) to the distress on a colleague’s face. Taking the risk to surface the unspoken tension that’s arising around the table. The small move you make in a meeting to make it safe to bring a wild idea. A passing smile in a hallway. The consistent reiteration of an important goal; the consistent applications of standards of performance. The sincerity and specificity of your praise. The questions you ask and the spirit in which you ask them. The energy and engagement with which you listen. What you do – and how you do it – when someone pops their head into your doorway and asks, “Do you have a minute?”
It is in the pixels, at least as much as in the grand speeches, where your leadership legacy gets laid down. But most managers never see these moments come or go. As a result, fail to capitalize on the most powerful leadership moment they have: the one that’s happening right now, right here, with this person.
You don’t have to create leadership pixels; you don’t have to schedule them into your already-crammed schedule. They’re already sitting right in front of you, and they are there for the leveraging. The question is whether you are observant enough to see them and engaged enough to make the most of them.