Being Present as a Leader

What happens when you stop letting your title get in the way of connecting with those you lead?


The best way to understand your organization's culture is to be present with your team, says former Navy Seal Commander Rorke Denver. That's why "getting out of the corner office and in front of your people" is so beneficial to building culture, trust and respect. And Rorke doesn't mean simply scheduling more meetings!

Being present is a concept that works whether you're a team leader or a team member; whether you are leading others, leading a project or simply leading yourself. It’s especially important in building culture, which depends on building relationships.

In this video, Rorke shares stories of those who have had a positive impact on his life and his own leadership journey. He also uses his military training and concepts to relate successful leadership principles.

Listen as Rorke provides key steps you can take right now to improve your organizational culture, such as looking for natural opportunities to listen more and to ask follow-up questions. This video is packed with insights on connecting with the people in your organization and working together to address daily challenges.

The corner office can be extremely lonely. When you run the show the job requirements are different. To be honest, there's a component of top leadership that requires some distance from the troops. It allows you to keep your head when others might be losing theirs. All that said, the only way you will truly understand your organization's culture, temperature and tone is if you get amongst the real folks that work the grind each and every day.

I remember well before my official leadership journey began, my dad would tell me about his early life at a powerful law firm. He was a young gun and lived under the tutelage of some of the all-time greats in the profession. The wonderful thing about these titans he worked with was not just that they were accomplished legal minds and operators; it was that they never considered themselves above anyone else in the firm.

My dad told me about working one of his early cases. He was in trial and he was missing a copy of a document that would be required that day. He was already in court and only had time to slip out at a break, call the firm, and ask someone to hand-deliver the document. Not 20 minutes later a hand reached over his shoulder to give him what he needed. It was not a clerk, a secretary or a firm gopher. It was the founder and managing partner.

Clearly someone else could have easily completed this task but the senior partner heard the request and figured he could just as easily do it. It would give him a chance to show my dad what leadership was all about, and even give him a mid-game boost if my dad needed it. Now that is the good stuff.

What I took from that lesson was the need to get out of the corner office and get my hands dirty as often as possible. It proved to be one of the true secrets of success. I never got the pulse of what my guys or organization was experiencing from an email while locked away in my office. I had to get out where the day-to-day work was taking place. I needed to get in the conversations with my subordinate leaders and foot soldiers and find out what was really going on and needed.

Amazing what you'll hear when you take a layer of formality off and get the deck plate level perspective. This became so important to me that I would even create official opportunities for this type of interaction to naturally occur. Now let me say this, and trust me that I mean it. I hate meetings. I am a meeting destroyer. Rarely do they accomplish anything. But I figured out quickly that some of our military customs were uniquely designed to facilitate side conversations.

Quarters, for instance, usually a morning meeting that would just take a head count and pass basic daily housekeeping information, PT, that's what we call physical training, when we would exercise as a team, and command barbecues all became vehicles for getting the real info I needed. Quarters was a little bit formal for the type of interaction that I was looking for, but when the meeting would break up, lo and behold, folks would hang around before heading back to their work spaces and just talk. I would always keep my schedule open for a half hour following those meeting so I can just talk and, more often, listen.

PT was one of the all-time best for this in my community of SEAL warriors. This is such an elemental part of the SEAL bloodlines that you would always get folks at their most raw. Our workouts were not for the faint of heart, not because they were so demanding. They were, but it was how hard we would compete with one another. It was also a place where rank did not count for anything. If you were playing water polo or running some combat conditioning course, the most junior man at the team could run right over the most senior man. It was not only expected, it was encouraged.

What I quickly realized was that following the workouts all the adrenaline would wear off, the endorphins would be high and the combo was basically truth serum. All the big issues would come out, either overtly because someone was fed up, or in a more crafty way that would let the leadership know there was an issue or an item to address. All any leader needed to do was listen, and I would listen.

Barbecues were the other great spot to pick up the goods. It seemed everyone took a wrap off and started to ease into casual conversations that would take the focus off our daily jobs. That would quickly be followed by all sorts of discussions that if you get involved in, or at least be in earshot of, might highlight some nugget of intel that could be critical to address. I would even go so far as to snoop around a bit just to see what I could pick up, knowing if guards were down I might get the truth.

The truth can be elusive for a leader. I found this was not because the team did not trust me. They were just world-class professionals and were not the type of men that complain. I needed to pull issues and gripes out of them so I could take those items for action.

The lesson here for the leader is to simply get to a place other than your regular routine and environments and listen to what the troops have to say. I would say that the top executive in every firm on earth has on average about 40% of the true information flowing throughout the organization. The administrative assistants, ground-pounders and mail room clerks, on the other hand, have at a minimum 98%, guaranteed. If you don't work your tail off getting into that wealth of knowledge, you should go find another gig.

Rorke Denver

Commander Rorke T. Denver, founder of Ever Onward, has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and other international hot spots. He starred in the ...

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