Throughout my career, I have heard many people profess that you can’t lead from behind your desk. I’ve thought that to be true, but I must admit that I became less and less convinced each year and now I see how shortsighted such a philosophy truly is. Yes, technology allows us to do more from our desk, but that is not the reason I believe the argument is flawed and grounded in legacy thought. There are lots of personal definitions of what it means to lead, but for the sake of argument let’s use “to guide, to direct, to influence”, as this stream of consciousness is more about the HOW than the WHAT. We can point to many great leaders who lead from the front, lead at the deck plate, and lead through presence.  None of us would argue the fact that leadership through presence is most effective and serves as the foundation for one to lead even from afar. But what about virtual presence?

As we migrate from tactical leader to operational leader and further to strategic leader, our sphere of influence grows beyond our ability to lead solely through physical presence. In fact, I am of the mind that truly strategic leaders can only be effective if we choose to lead even from behind our desk. I believe true leaders educate, communicate, remove barriers, and create opportunities for individuals within the team and the team as a whole. I offer that all of these can also be done from behind the desk and sometimes with greater effectiveness.

Just last week, among other things, I’ve observed the following:

  • One Four Star Admiral write a single letter to a Four Star General that has generated much action, focused the efforts of many, and reallocated numerous resources
  • Peers remove barriers by engaging seniors via phone
  • Juniors create opportunities by making a case for the need for a conference by writing a message
  • Our Senior Enlisted Leader effectively communicate a way ahead after listening to issues brought before her while sitting at her desk
  • Personally educated others by writing blog posts, book abstracts, and sharing operational context using the written word

Like many leaders, I did not sit behind my desk all week. I was physically present. In fact, it’s the physical presence aspect of leading I enjoy most. However, I in no way stopped leading when I sat behind my desk, called a colleague, or opened my laptop at home. The thought that we can’t lead from behind our desk is simply short-sighted and false. The truth is we can lead even from behind our desk, we must lead even from behind our desk, and, yes, sometimes it makes the most sense to get behind the desk in order to lead. The greatest form of leadership is leadership through influence and I have yet to find another location where my sphere is greater than when I am sending e-mail, participating in a telephone/video conference, or posting on the internet.

The need to lead through presence is both clear and obvious, but the true leader finds a way to lead evenand sometimes especially, from behind the desk.

  • How are you leading your team?
  • What might you do from behind your desk to complement that which you are doing through physical presence?
  • When does it make most sense to get behind that desk in order to more effectively lead?