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Great Leadership and the Surprising Need for Distance


Our society just can’t seem to get enough of the latest high-tech gadgets. (Apple Watch, anyone?) On the other hand, the technology that allows us to be digitally connected 24/7 can also keep us distracted and create distance in our personal and professional relationships. Ever glance around the room in a busy restaurant? It’s amazing how many people are talking on their phones, checking email, or sending text messages. Sure, they are communicating with the world, but they’re totally ignoring the other people at the table! That kind of distance is, indeed, a problem. My topic today is about a different kind of distance—one that is actually crucial for great leadership.

In the business world, there are many times when we can benefit from creating space around a difficult problem or person to gain a better perspective. You know what they say about being too close to the forest to see the trees. That’s absolutely true!

A client was recently telling me that he would become irritable and defensive whenever he interacted with one of his dotted-line managers. This person just pushed his buttons, almost instantly. He thought the manager didn’t notice how hard he was working and never gave him credit for his contributions to the team. Remaining annoyed with the manager became an ongoing pattern.

After discussing the situation in our coaching session, he realized that putting some distance between himself and this manager could really help him remain more even-keeled during their communications. He could try to break the pattern and approach these interactions in a more mature way, avoiding the usual triggers.

Over several meetings, we continued to talk about the value of distance and perspectives. That’s why I had to smile when my client shared an interesting observation: “You know, I actually feel bad for this guy. He is doing the best he can, and I am expecting him to change just for me. That’s not realistic.” Stepping back from a problem allows you to see it in a different light and creates space for empathy and compassion to shine in.

So how can you apply this good kind of distance to benefit your career? The key is improving your emotional intelligence. Make it a priority to build in more empathy and compassion to all of your daily interactions. People with higher emotional intelligence have a greater understanding of other people (and themselves). They are more sensitive to the needs of those around them. They are aware of how their words and actions impact their colleagues. It may take some time, but you can develop and enhance those same characteristics with hard work and some healthy perspective. Distance really can be a good thing. Unless you’re at dinner with your family, in which case I highly recommend turning off your phone.

Please share your thoughts.

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