The oak tree

Visible and Felt Leadership

May 6, 2022
Eddie Mccullough

Organisations invest significant resource and energy into producing strategies, plans, goals, and objectives, that if executed as intended, will deliver the outcome desired. Turning this intent into action will primarily be influenced by the varying levels of leadership involved, so how this leadership is demonstrably expressed, and how it is ‘felt’ “close to the valve” where the activities are taking place are critical to team performance.

Commitment needs to be motivated, inspired, and led by those who have leadership responsibilities, from executives to front line supervision. Creating a culture of trust, teamwork and commitment, motivating, and embracing best practice, and inspiring value adding innovation will primarily come through those who lead.

Those who have a leadership role need to be intimately aware of their influence. Schein [1] states: “Leaders create and change cultures; managers and administrators live within them” (1992:5). Leaders create culture by “what they systematically pay attention to. This can mean anything from what they notice or comment on to what they measure, control, reward and in other ways, what they systematically deal with. Even casual remarks and questions that are consistently geared to a certain area can be as potent as a formal control mechanism and measurement”.

5 steps

Organisations state their goals through their visions and strategy. Fundamental to success is leaders believing in this, that this belief is communicated through face to face conversation to allow trust, respect and transparency to be built and maintained. The vision should be expressed through the language of the organisational values, demonstrated in the behaviours of leaders, and evident in their decision-making process.  If the vision and strategy is to be believed in and achieved, then it is accepted that leaders will need to create a culture where this is possible by understanding that creating psychological safety leads to tangible results in performance. To do this they need to be visible, and when they are how they act and behave needs to be FELT by their teams in a way that motivates and inspires, both in their presence, but also their absence.  “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence", (Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook).

Leaders have a very important role in creating a high performance culture, what questions they ask and how they ask them will significantly influence the levels of trust felt by their teams. Organisations with a trusting workplace perform better. Edmondson [2] states: “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. When a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety, good things happen".

Research shows that, prior to every performance related incident, where the outcome became undesirable and unpredicted, information was available somewhere in the organisation pointing to the fact that trouble was brewing, but this information failed to make its way upwards to people with the capacity and inclination to take effective action. A focus on visible and FELT leadership will motivate leaders to be as informed as they can be. Undertaking visits to sites and premises in a way that connects them to the front line operations, while conducting conversations that provide real and honest information about not only what is going on but how it is being undertaken and why is vital to predictable operations. By doing so, those undertaking the work will engage with a sense of purpose and identity, contribution, and inclusivity because those in charge are creating the environment for it. Leaders in mature organisations know that the best way to find out what is going on is to see for themselves. This means making regular visits to talk informally with front line staff about performance issues that they may be facing

A sharp focus on Visible and FELT leadership should introduce skills and techniques that influences the context in which leadership visits are undertaken, what the objective of having them is and why; if you want a different outcome then you need a different input. An important question may be how much time should busy leaders devote to this kind of activity? It is worth reflecting on some important information on this subject reported in the Ladbroke Grove rail crash which has been cited extensively that addressed this question:

[3] “companies in the rail industry should be expected to demonstrate that they have, and implement, a system to ensure that senior management spends an adequate time devoted to safety (performance)issues, with front line workers… practice suggests at least one hour per week should be formally scheduled in the diaries of senior executives for this task. Middle managers should have one hour per day and front-line managers should spend at least 30 percent of their time in the field”.

With a diverse workforce, skills and demands, reflecting on how we can adopt this type of approach is important, not only in frequency but the context of the visit.

If leaders are to create trust and respect then it is important that their interactions with the workforce are Authentic, unearthing what is going on “dynamically” through the quality of their conversations, the trust they instil and the questions they ask. Visible and FELT leadership visits should be undertaken in a context of curiosity as well as the leader subtly creating a sense that they are “here to help and support”. This can be done by using particular questions sets such as the examples below, even asking only two or three of these questions in a visit can have a significant impact on credibility and trust, a belief that they care and allows the workforce to speak:

  • Tell me about your job?
  • What are the greatest issues you face?
  • What additional support do you need from leadership, or the organisation?
  • What do you think works well?
  • Where improvements do you think could be made, and what would this look like?

This line of questioning invites people to identify issues, but also what is working well as this is a marker for ‘what is possible’. It takes skill to have these in your repertoire and ask them in a way that appears natural and authentic, however, if mastered they are hugely efficient at unearthing “warning signs” and “weak signals”, as well as promoting innovation and solution thinking,  as well as identifying areas of high performance to be encouraged. It also exhibits an element of care and curiosity from the leader due to what is being asked and how it is being asked.

Leaders who identify issues on visits need to raise these for discussion at appropriate meetings. It is fundamental to both trust and accountability in the line that what is found is formally identified, dealt with, and fed back to the workforce. This is part of the foundational building blocks of a culture where performance is important, indeed cared about and is actively influenced and informed by leadership.

If you would like to discuss how Visible and Felt leadership could benefit your organisation get in touch by e mailing The team at FidesOak® are ready to support you.

[1] Schein, E.H., (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

[2] Edmondson Amy C (2018). The Fearless Organisation – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. John Wiley &Sons

[3] Hopkins A (2009) Failure to Learn – The BP Texas City Refinery Disaster. CCH Australia

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