Why leaders should be visible (and what that means)

Let’s start with what this does not mean: your leaders being visible is not having their photos, regardless of how flattering they may be, displayed in snap frames in head office or on the “Meet your SLT” page on your intranet. Nor does an annual appearance for a monologue on performance at an employee conference count.

By: James Blair on

In this context, visible means significantly more than being seen. Yes, this is about leaders’ presence, but it is both in the literal ‘being present’ sense and the ‘executive’ definition which encompasses prominence and gravitas. Just as importantly, it is also about their being relatable, accessible, and approachable. Clearly, no two leaders are the same; all humans are made differently. But there are certain attitudes, characteristics, and approaches that are more important than the rest when it comes to good, visible leadership. Those attributes are empathy, strength, passion, commitment and consistency.

There’s the old adage about how managers manage people and leaders lead people. If this is a cliché, it’s because it’s true.

Good leaders carry a clear understanding of the strategy, vision, and purpose of their organisation. They know what needs to happen to reach the company’s goals. And most importantly, because they are visible leaders and they understand the importance of engagement, they share this with their teams.

Visible leaders also understand that communication is a two-way street. They get that fully engaging with, rather than simply communicating to, their people is the difference between leading and managing them. Ultimately, this will be the difference between a motivated, high-performing team and a dysfunctional, disparate, and disenfranchised one.

As we are living through times of enormous stress, change and public anxiety, visible leadership, and one that embodies the five qualities listed above, is more crucial than ever.

How can we be more visible as leaders?

1. Be visible, literally

I know I opened by saying that being visible is so much more than this, and it is, but it does include this as a basic requirement! This is about building trust and relatability with your people. A fundamental way to earn trust is still to do it with eye contact. Being physically seen by our employees is a powerful tool when it comes to engagement. Anyone who’s ever worked for someone whose presence is only ever felt via impersonal emails, and whose face they’d struggle to recognise in a police line-up, will know only too well the difference this can make.

When and where it is possible for leaders to meet their people on the shop floor (literally or metaphorically), getting to know them personally and showing a genuine interest in their work and personal lives, along with their interests and beliefs, will create a sense of psychological safety. This kind of environment supports the needs of our teams and eases operations from a business perspective.

Where this is not possible, and in-person interaction isn’t an option, leaders should consider video calls or messages in their place, so that employees can still see the whites of their leaders’ eyes. This also allows for a relatability and expression of empathy that the written word rarely provides. Talking of which…

2. Vary your comms

There isn’t a single capture-all internal comms strategy that works for all organisations. It must be bespoke, as it needs to represent the nature of that business and its unique workforce. It should also be revisited and revised over time, as staff needs, business structures and available technologies change. “Little hiccups” along the way (ahem), like a massive, global pandemic, also change things up enough to justify a comms health check, so that you know how your comms are performing here and now.

The strategy should include several ways to reach your people regardless of their role, level, and working arrangements. As well as video comms, digital platforms (intranet and social media), newsletters or news channels, ambient messaging, and blogs should be considered to augment the business’s email platform.

3. Recognise and appreciate

Recognition and appreciation, particularly in the context of how we contribute to the wider organisation, have never been more important. Gen Z thrives off it even more than their Millennial friends, who, in turn, require it more than their Generation X colleagues.

Recognising and appreciating the contributions of their reports are crucial practices for a visible leader. Rewards don’t have to be tangible or financial, and appreciation doesn’t need to be for specific achievements. Outside of those old-school “salesperson of the month” awards, there is plenty to recognise and celebrate. Collaboration, innovative thinking, creativity, colleague support, and exemplary customer feedback are all worth shouting about. The critical thing for visible leadership is that this recognition happens regularly and is shared widely. A peer-to-peer recognition platform can also be an engaging, fun, and social experience for our people. Leaders can use it to shout about the contributions of their people, and everyone in the business can share some love when their colleagues do something special.

Every organisation has its leaders and managers under some title or other. It’s the qualities of those people (their passion, strength, empathy, commitment, and consistency), their availability and relatability, and the trust they earn with their people, that determines whether they’re visible leaders or just managers of people. That is what will ultimately enrich morale, boost productivity and profits, and enhance staff loyalty and commitment.