What Leaders See
"Da-Da!" she nearly screams at me as we're strolling home. "Do you see me?"
"Yes," I try to convince her for what feels like the hundredth time. "I see you walking on that wall."
And then, lest she forget, I add, "I always see you."
And so it goes on the weeks I have my daughter and we walk home from her school. The route normally takes me 10 minutes, but we stretch it to half an hour when we're together, mainly because every stone wall is a jungle gym, every pine cone must be counted, and every cloud already looks like something else.
All this she takes in and openly discusses with me. (Urban walks can excite the imagination like no other in both adults and children, which is why I'll never move to the suburbs.) And I fight hard my reflex to complain. After all, in a few years' time, she won't want much to do with me, I imagine. That's because then, she'll want to be seen by someone else.
But what my daughter doesn't fully realize now is that I see her. Since she arrived on the planet, I've seen much of what she's done, from spitting up to dance recitals, from first encounters with Mickey Mouse to art that covers my fridge. This seeing is second-nature to parents; we focus on our children because we love them and want to protect them. Evolution and biology have thankfully teamed up to make it natural and desirable to see what our kids are up to.
But what about leaders? What do we see?
Leaders see people
At a recent CEO roundtable, one participant threw out a question to get us started: "What are you focusing on these days?"
These monthly gatherings of peers are designed as safe spaces where a handful of entrepreneurs and leaders get together for an hour or so and discuss the ups and downs of our businesses. We share ideas, ask questions, lament, celebrate, and offer challenges. I always leave refreshed and with ideas and ways to move forward in my work.
People began to answer:
"Growing my gross operating margin."
"The new menu roll out."
"Edits to the employee handbook."
"A cool new marketing idea."
It was my turn. I was about to give my stock answer when folks ask me how Batch is going. I was about to say, "This year is all about inside baseball. So, I'm elbow-deep in financials and performance, working hard to increase the top line 40% while making sure we post an operating profit of 20%."
But that's a lie.
Well, not entirely. But it's not really where my focus is, I'm discovering. Yes; I want those results to happen, but I'm learning that one cannot focus on numbers. While this may sound counter-intuitive, I'm learning it's true: when you focus on numbers, you can't focus on your people. And the number one driver of numerical results in a company are its people. People drive numbers. Always. It's never the other way around.
So I called a mental audible and changed my answer.
"I'm focused on my people," I said.
What gets noticed gets improved
Ever since any of us showed up on this planet, we've only ever wanted to be seen. The luckiest of us have been noticed by parents our whole lives. As we got older, friends noticed. Teachers, mentors, or coaches did, too. Then maybe a lover or two. A partner.
And if we know what it's like to be seen by someone, for someone to take in our flaws and our strengths, both our assets and our liabilities, we understand how life-giving and identity-forming that can be. When we are seen by someone, we know we're not crazy. We're not just some orb floating through planet Earth. We actually live and move and have being. We are because someone else recognizes that we are.
Why wouldn't leaders focus first and foremost on people, then? When we see our teammates and employees, we give them the best and biggest motivation to keep being who they are, working hard at what they do, and finding fulfillment in the tasks they perform. And if and when they do their jobs well, top and bottom lines will improve.
But you can't just look at people. You've got to see them.
This is why when I watch a baseball game, I don't look at a that last play, a groundout to shortstop. I see the third baseman crouch low pre-pitch, hugging the line because this right-handed batter tends to pull the ball. I see the second baseman break for first base when the ball is hit far to his right so he can back up the incoming throw from the shortstop. I see the baserunner from the other team take a hard turn when rounding third just in case said error happens so he can score the go-ahead run.
I see all this because I love baseball, having grown up playing it. I don't look at the game like thousands of others in the stands. I see the on-field ballet occurring because I know what it's like to do any of those things, to play any of those positions.
It's why some of you, after watching a touchdown run, notice how the left guard opened up the hole for the running back to dart through and break lose. We look at the end zone dance; you saw the war in the trenches.
It's why I look at a plate of tasty tacos, but you see the delicate work of the chef to shave those radishes just thinly enough to add a kick of flavor without detracting from the signature mole sauce.
It's why I look at a fun play on stage, but you see the blocking done by the director so the lead gets to her spot downstage just as the song crescendos and we can all feel the emotion as if it's our own while she belts out her lament in the second act.
It's why leaders can't just look at who showed up at work today. We've got to see the humanity in front of us, the ones who will be serving our customers and our clients. These people are mothers and sons, friends and volunteers, dreamers and the heartbroken. And to think that we as leaders can see them as anything less - or that our focus should fall anywhere else - is an oversight that will ruin our company.
Leaders must be willing to be seen
But leaders aren't the only ones doing the seeing. Eye contact works both ways, you know.
For the longest time, I was drawn to leadership roles and opportunities due to both natural abilities and natural fears. Yes; I've got a higher tolerance for risk than most, a dedicated (and maybe genetic) work ethic, and a willingness and fearlessness to stand up and speak out. But I've also long thought that being out front meant that no one would notice me there.
This is a logical failure of the highest order. Those out front get noticed the most - that's a byproduct of being out front! But I believed that if out front, people would only notice the endearing qualities that made me a leader while I'd be working hard to hide all my shortcomings so no one would see them.
But, of course, this isn't how seeing and noticing works, at least in any authentically human sense. If we want to be fully seen, in that life-giving way I've mentioned above, then we have to be willing to be totally exposed so that our people can take in all that we are.
And this is scary. But it's also the foundation of real relationship, real community, real teamwork, and real success. It's like walking a tightrope - frightening as hell but there's no exhilaration in standing on the platform just thinking about it.
I remarked to my friend last weekend during a consulting session, "I'm trying to come up with a metaphor...hang on." And after some more quiet deliberation, I added, "I've got half a metaphor. .... Which means I've still got no metaphor at all."
Being seen is the same. If we only want someone to notice part of us, then they miss us entirely. We have to show all of who we are, or else no one will notice anything. This puts us in a figurative blind spot: we're out here, moving and living and doing, but no one can see, especially those we most deeply want to take note of what we're up to.
But! There's a way out. And it can start with those closest to us - friends, lovers, parents, confidants. If we're willing to indulge them and allow ourselves to be seen by them, we'll experience the relief and affirmation that comes with someone who sees all of us and doesn't run. Who takes in exactly who we are, warts and all, and stays.
It's natural to think that our actual self won't line up with their perceived version of us. But quickly this will be dispelled when you learn their perception of you was never perfection. It was authenticity. So the energy you (and I) spent trying to present perfection time and again can now be directed toward somewhere else.
Like seeing people. And letting them see you.
Leading is seeing.