Leading at a Distance?

When I look back at the leaders who have influenced my life the most, I find that they were primarily people that I have known personally. I felt valued by their relationship and approachability and therefore opened myself up to them and to their ideas. Those leaders won my following because they connected with me and went out of their way to show that they cared about me. Relatability is a definite strength of leadership. So is vulnerability.

Which is why I was slightly confused about a certain former President of the United States: George Washington. I am sluggishly chipping away at Ron Chernow’s biography entitled:Washington a life, and I was surprised to find out that George Washington’s leadership style was not at all the approachable and relatable kind that I have found so influential personally.

Washington was often described as “aloof” and hard to figure out. In public Washington held his cards close to his chest. People were mystified by this man, but they nevertheless followed him with devotion through frigid winters, scant rations, and bloody battles.

Chernow records one of Washington’s soldiers as saying: “Power required distance, (Washington) seemed to have reasoned, familiarity and intimacy eroded it”(Chernow, 66). Towards his personal house guests Washington seemed no warmer. Washington “was congenial without being deeply personal, friendly without being familiar, and preferred a cool sociability that distanced him from people even as it invited him closer”(Chernow, 122). Why would one of the most influential leaders in history chose to lead at such a distance from others? Well, for Washington at least, his style was effective!

Now it is clear to me that most leaders today are not leading a revolution against the greatest world power on the planet. “Leadership” is an almost infinitely expansive umbrella with all sorts of variations and forms underneath it. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and this makes it difficult to legislate universal rules that say: “All leaders must…” Every leader brings his ore her own leadership style that is based off of personality and mission. George Washington was no different.

But does intimacy really erode power? Can leaders of organizations, pastors in churches, even school teachers or professors be too “buddy-buddy” with those entrusted in their care that they can lose influence? I think there is definitely some truth to that.

We all have seen the two extremes of “distance and power” and “relatable intimacy” in action. Generally speaking both extremes are dangerous. The first can cause followers to develop disdain for their cold and impersonal taskmasters, and the latter leader will eventually lose their voice amongst the horizontal plain of fraternity. There is a wide gap between the two, and I would advise that your leadership (in whatever capacity) happens somewhere in that gap — with an emphasis toward the extreme that suits your style and objective.

A possible synthesis may look like this: Have some people in your following that you are especially close with. Relate with them, invest in them, and be their friend; but do not let that some become all. Leaders are there to lead, not to befriend.