Are You Missing The “Potent Pixels” of Leadership?

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.

 

9 replies
    • leslie.williams
      leslie.williams says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jeanne! I love your reflection about leading by example. I always think of that in terms of concrete behavior. But leading by example also includes our very way of being – the quality of our attention and presence – which makes a huge impact without making any concrete impression at all. I appreciate your making me think more deeply about what ‘leading by example’ really means to me. I’d be interested in your own (and others’) thoughts on this!

      Reply
  1. Tami
    Tami says:

    Well said, Leslie! I wonder if there’s another group that gets caught up in the pixels and loses the big sweeping opportunities? What I take away from your post though is that over time the pixels form the foundation of grand sweeping leadership. The key is perhaps to stay present and discern when to focus on which aspect of leadership… So thought provoking! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Virginia Colin
    Virginia Colin says:

    My favorite part:
    “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.”
    True for interactions in businesses, clubs, and families. I especially notice the family part, because I work with families.

    Reply
  3. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Stephen Covey told a story of leadership … there were workers hacking away in the jungle working very diligently – the leader climbed up a tree to see where they were going and told everyone to halt that they were going the wrong way and had change directions. He said that the workers below complained and said but we’re making good progress.

    I always think of this when someone defines leadership. After reading this article, I now will add is that if the leader had a good rapport with the workers he could break the news to them with less argument. 🙂

    You truly changed my definition of leadership. Great article, thanks. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Lorrie
    Lorrie says:

    This is a lovely and very useful blog, Leslie. Thank you. As I read I was remembering the Management-By-Walking-Around style I used back in my management days. When I remembered to get up from my desk and visit colleagues we seemed more capable of managing time and stresses of the work at hand as a true team. When I forgot, which was often, it seemed we were bumping up against each other – accomplishing tasks but not truly fulfilling the vision of our work.

    Glad for your wisdom!

    Reply
  5. Reggie Marra
    Reggie Marra says:

    I love this, Leslie. The pixel metaphor is perfect.

    I spent my first 21 post-college years in classrooms and gyms. When I bump into the now forty- and fifty-somethings (YIKES!) who were adolescents back then–a bumping into that is more and more commonplace in the world of Facebook and Linkedin–those who don’t want to hunt me down and kill me inevitably remember some small gesture, comment habit or behavior that provided them with something of value, small or large, at the right time. Not one speaks about the particular subject matter we engaged.

    The examples you provide in the third-to-last paragraph ring absolutely true for me. Thanks for this high resolution reminder!

    Reply

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