Mel Gibson, Floods, Shop-Floors and Unseen Leaders

I once worked with an organization located in 3 different cities, with its headquarters collocated with one of its operational divisions.

I delivered a workshop for the division collocated with the headquarters when the CEO walked by.

He was a man I knew well, someone I trusted, and someone I had known for 20-years. I knew he had put his heart and soul into his organization’s success.

Someone in the class, who had worked for the organization for over a year, asked, ‘who that guy was?’

I was shocked on two fronts: Firstly, how could anybody not know who the CEO was? And secondly, I knew the CEO would be heartbroken if he ever thought someone would know who he was.

But there we were.

Read about Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence To Be a Better Leader

My friend, the CEO, had gotten so busy being busy that he had hidden away from his employees on the ‘shop floor.’

He was an absent leader.

I am currently consulting for a town that was hammered by a once-in-a-thousand-year flood. The mayor and town staff are working extremely hard for their residents. And they are doing super important work.

But the flood-impacted residents are not seeing what they are doing. One person told me that ‘they know that the Mayor is working hard, but we never see or hear from her.’

Another absent leader.

Read about Trust & Chance: 2 Things You Need for Leading in a Crisis

A Harvard Business Review survey of 1,000 working adults showed eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned about absent behaviours; employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn’t do. From the employee’s perspective, absentee leadership is a significant problem and more troublesome than other forms of bad leadership.

Often, we think that absentee leadership is where someone occupies a leadership role but doesn’t carry out the responsibilities.

But in both of these cases, the leader was carrying out their responsibilities, but the people who matter most, their employees and residents, had no idea who they were or what they were doing.

Either way, absent leadership is the most common type of incompetent leader. It’s not the type of negative leadership that leads to complaints or investigations.

But it leaves no less destruction in its wake.

It degrades your mission.

It creates a vacuum.

It leaves no sense of direction.

No purpose.

No vision.

No meaning.

Your people need and want to see you, and most importantly, they want to feel heard by you.


“Leadership is about people, and the most direct means to show the importance of anything is with the physical presence.”

– reference unknown


When the leader is present, people are more confident and ease in their work. There is a deep psychological need for leadership, and this manifests itself in positive outcomes when the leader is both visible and accessible.

In the movie The Patriot (2000), Mel Gibson starred as a character loosely based on the Revolutionary War leader Andrew Pickens. In the film, Gibson’s character is seen personally leading attacks against the British. The real Pickens understood the need to be present on the battlefield; otherwise, early in the Revolutionary War, American soldiers tended to retreat when confronted by the highly disciplined British Army.

Read ACT, BE, DO: What Skills are Needed for Leadership Nirvana?

We are not all battlefield leaders.

But we are all leaders, and your people deserve and need to see you out and about.

They need you to be present, human and setting the example.