You Can’t Lead Through Email

Over the last few years, I’ve had various opportunities to lead. My employers, my church, and a few non-profit organizations, each bold and brave in their own way, have entrusted me with some form of leadership or management responsibilities.

One can imagine how I’ve stepped up in these positions. Heroic images of motivation, inspiration, and innovation might circle your head as you play out what I looked like in these positions. Stereotypical leadership scenarios play like a movie-reel. They show me pacing back and forth giving an arousing speech to a team in a locker room, or to troops on a battle field, I can’t quite decide. Regardless, there I am, charging forward bravely, leading from the front, going into battle for my people, being brave like a roaring lion.

These images, if you did indeed humor me by imagining them (thank you), would, however, be a complete conjuring of your imagination–a leadership mirage, if you will. In these images, I appear as a lion, but in real life, behind the cubicle walls and underneath the dress-up, I am only a sheep.

Depictions like these, ones that bask in the glamour of “leadership greatness” are easily conjured because we have heard so many stories and anecdotes about great historical leaders. Tails of Henry Ford, Abe Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. have slightly brainwashed us. These legends often appear more like mythical creatures than what they really were–high functioning people doing their jobs.

If I’m being an honest sheep then I’ll admit that there’s really nothing special about being dubbed a “Leader.” In fact, the lessons I’ve learned in my short time are mostly the same lessons I learned in my very first years of working. They are those of communication, consistency, and honesty, to name a few.

Leadership is a funny thing. It is painted with bright colors and one-line quotes from idols, titans, and moguls. Its lessons are summarized in memes and tweets and YouTube videos that contain dramatic background music. It feels mystical, mythical, and methodical. It seems special and hard. But it’s not.

Leadership is actually much simpler than it’s made out to be. For example, here are some common rules that leaders should follow (no rocket science here):

  1. Show up on time, show respect to others
  2. Ask questions and listen, make good use of the information
  3. Invest time and resources into people, try to make others better
  4. Don’t try to lead through email

Wait, what? Did #4 throw you off? (Of course not Chris, it’s in the title!)

Don’t lead through email? You probably haven’t heard that rule in any TED Talks, New York Times Best Sellers, or podcasts. This is because it is so basic, so obvious. But the truth is that it’s one of the most important rules for the modern business leader to follow, and it’s often overlooked or ignored.

Of course, email is one of the best tools at our fingertips, but it cannot be expected to do it all. (I couldn’t help myself with that pun)

Picture with me a scene of my favorite leader of all time, Maximus Decimus Meridius, from my favorite movie of all time, Gladiator. This scene brings back all of the fairy tales of leadership that I ridiculed a moment ago but please, bear with me.

Maximus is speaking to a fearful bunch of gladiators who are set to enter a gruesome battle in the Coliseum. He says, “We have a better chance of survival if we work together… Do you understand?” Dramatic pause. The gladiators look at each other. Then, Maximus says, “If we stay together, we survive!”

Now imagine if this display of leadership had been attempted through email? I know, you get the point, but it was an opportunity to reference Gladiator, and I took it. (Watch the scene).

Leaders who use email as their primary form of communication can only lead so much. Here, let me show you. Back to reality, picture with me this time a different leader, a manager who sits in his corner office behind a keyboard while firing out emails and implementing changes, pushing policies, and doling out feedback. Do you want to follow him? I don’t.

No, rather it is the leader who picks up the phone, who looks into your eyes, who speaks directly and who listens intently; it is this leader who is worth following.

Okay fine, I admit it! I have been guilty of hiding behind email many times. (Remember, I’m a sheep). The benefits, after all, are obvious: paper trail, clear message, time efficient. Yeah, of course.

Yet I realize that even my own use of email is often cheap and easy. Like bad seeds scattered about a field, they produce bad crop. Some seeds sprout up, others don’t. The ones that do produce are often weak or lack nutrients. Better though are the seeds that are planted with care, watered, nurtured, given attention. Direct contact brings life.

The problem is that we all have that little demon on our shoulder whispering reminders that we ought to be more efficient and more productive. But this constant effort for efficiency and productivity is short-sighted for a leader. It is the proverbial house built on sand. Sure, the ease and speed of emailing can help move things along but in the end, to truly lead, efficient and productive simply aren’t enough. People need to hear your voice, see your face, know you. And you need to hear their voices, see their faces, and know them.

I am not a leadership expert but what I have learned in my brief experience playing the part is that I always get better results, build better teams, and have more fun when I choose a verbal conversation over an email.

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