helicopterA military is able to project power through mere presence, the police often maintain order and nearly always alter behavior just by being within our field of view, and odds are our children act a little differently when their parents are with them. But what happens when presence becomes expected and evolves into the standard?  There is no way for a military to be omnipresent, the police cannot be everywhere illegal activity may occur (even with surveillance cameras everywhere), and parents who hover over their kids are stifling their development at best. The term often used to describe parents who feel compelled to guide their children’s every move is “Helicopter Parenting.” This act of “helicoptering” can be applied to so many things, certainly leadership.

A few years back, we had a new Navy Captain join our team and positioned as our leader. We were a tight group with a clear direction, a tremendous amount of expertise, and much work to be done. She was new to our specific effort and was already told that she would be on the team for no more than six months. Though she lacked the expertise, she felt compelled to “lead” us by looking over our shoulder. I say that in a literal sense. In fact, we had nicknamed her “The Hummingbird” because she would spontaneously arrive on our shoulder with no announcement and repeatedly pepper us with status updates and “happy to glad” changes. In her estimation, she was leading through presence. In our estimation, we knew she was interested but considered her constant hovering as a distraction, not leadership.

Leaders, parents, teachers, law enforcement, and so many others are able to demonstrate interest in a given group of people, activity, or initiative just by being there. But there is a point where presence begins to stifle development of others, hinder the pace of progress, and communicate little more than a lack of trust. Sometimes a hovering presence is warranted and such considerations are moot. But often times those unintended consequences should be at the forefront of our mind.

  • Do I really need to execute this task myself or should I use it as an opportunity to develop and empower another?
  • Should I be the one addressing this group or will I inadvertently have a negative effect on the conversation by being there?
  • Is my proactive questioning taking away the opportunity for another to demonstrate their strong initiative by offering answers to the questions I have yet to ask?

Whether as a parent, a coach, a leader at work, or a nation, presence is not always the answer. Our responsibility is to condition behavior, shape culture, and develop others. The less present we feel compelled to be, the more effectively we are upholding our responsibilities. It is vital that others know how much we care and nothing speaks louder than presence. But if we are so present that we undermine our intent, we are doing everyone a disservice. Many leaders are criticized by not demonstrating a strong enough commitment to the principle that is “leadership by walking around.” The fact is that there is a good chance that through a visible absence, that individual is really communicating trust and confidence in others, affording them the opportunity to lead themselves.

Don’t be a helicopter parent/leader unless your child/team absolutely needs it. There is no denying that being there is fun and one of the reasons we chose to be parents and/or leaders (and yes each is a choice). The more we hover, the less they grow.  The less they need us, the better job we are doing. Our children will outgrow us…it’s on us to help our team do the same.

Picture credit: Dr. Robyn Silverman