Can you be a leader in absentia? What happens when a leader isn't visible, present, and/or in the right place to make decisions. I am reminded of a particular event in my past life as a Tank Platoon Leader:
My platoon was responsible for the outer perimeter of a house search, as well as the immediate response team if the house clearing team got into trouble. I instructed the sergeants where to place their personnel and once secured, signalled that the house clearing team could move in. Then I went to each of my guard points and checked on the men. Good idea right? Well, not really. About half way around the perimeter, I realized that if the "fit hit the shan" NOBODY KNEW HOW TO GET IN TOUCH WITH ME, OR WHERE I WAS. I was literally jumping from checkpoint to checkpoint. Good for soldier morale, BAD for control and communication. I immediately grabbed my radio operator, and an extra body from the checkpoint I was at. I sent the extra body back to the previous checkpoint to grab another "extra body" there and report to me at the car port of the house still being cleared. I then established a command point at the car port, where I could see most of my perimeter, had communications with my higher and support elements (through the radio operator), and had runners to send messages to the checkpoints. As soon as the two extra bodies arrived (now runners), I sent one out to tell all my checkpoints were to find me. I kept the other runner close by, just in case. I know was in a position to make decisions, and EVERYBODY knew where I was and how to get ahold of me.
Thankfully, that night the worst we had to deal with was a drunk man who stumbled into one of my checkpoints before he realized he was surrounded by camouflage. He was quickly searched and hustled to the back of a HMMWV so that he wouldn't compromise the search. He was released later that day, no worse than some of the college students I've seen coming out of the "drunk tanks."
But I learned a very valuable lesson. I was expected to lead and make decisions. In order to do that, I needed to be where people could find me so that I could make the decisions. I needed an established line of communication (either through the radio or the runners). And, I needed to be somewhere the troops could see me. I accomplished all three by setting up in that car port. But what does this mean to the business world?
In a previous post I talked about managers (notice I didn't call this person a LEADER) who show up and close their door. I also mentioned the positive affect of spending time with your subordinates. Now here is the catch. If the fit hits the shan (as it so often can), then you as a leader need to be at a known location, with clear paths of communication, and visible to your subordinates. If you are out with a particular subordinate, and nobody knows where that is, you need to get visible and established. With iPhones, Crackberries, and regular cheap cell phones, communication really isn't a problem today; but you still need to be established, and preferably visible. A leader in absentia is no leader at all.