At the beginning of this course, we looked at leadership traits. What attributes lend themselves to good leadership? Many of these attributes, drawn from Kouzes and Posner’s (2011) characteristics of admired leaders, related to supportiveness, trust, cooperation, and communication. Reflecting on the readings and discussions throughout this course, I’d like to add one more item to this list: proximity. I don’t mean physical proximity, although that has certainly been at the forefront of the past several weeks. Proximity to me, as a quality of leadership, works hand-in-hand with other attributes and modifies their effectiveness and authenticity.
The language a leader chooses to use conveys proximity through their communication. Does a leader choose language that includes them in the larger group, such as “we,” or do they distance themselves through “you” and “they”? Proximity, in this way, can be seen as a facet of reflective leadership, by cultivating an awareness of the behaviours and language that brings a leader closer to their team (Castelli, 2016). In remote communication—as many of us have experienced these past weeks and months—the responsiveness of a leader can also convey a strong sense of proximity. Timely, frequent updates create a sense of leadership being close to the issue at hand.
Emotional proximity also shines through in authentic leadership. Closing the distance between the team and its leader can be a matter of word choice: perhaps a personal anecdote or a vulnerable moment. Self-awareness and mindfulness are essential to reflective leadership (Castelli, 2016), and enable leaders to build closer emotional proximity to their team. Leaders need to be able to share the same burdens of stress, express the same frustrations, and celebrate the same small wins as their team.
Proximity is also integral to change and project management. Does a leader set a directive into motion from afar and expect it to waterfall down the hierarchy as each person plays their role, or do they move with the project at each step of the way? A leader who has proximity to a project can support more effectively through direct observation. Rather than asking, “how is the project going?” they have a close-up view of the project and can ask meaningful questions, such as “how was the response to your presentation in the meeting on Monday?”
Looking to the future, I’d like to cultivate a leadership style of proximity. In projects that I lead, I’d like to remain close to the issues and close to the team members so I can support them from a first-hand perspective. How can I cultivate this leadership style? It likely involves aspects of adaptive leadership to remain close to individual needs and goals (Khan, 2017). It may involve qualities of values-based leadership to help people see their goals and help them achieve what they cannot do by themselves (O’Toole, 2008). Importantly, it should involve developing the leadership capacity in others (Huggins, 2017). Maintaining proximity enables leaders to see and support the qualities that allow others to do their best work.
I recognize that not every leader has the ability to maintain close proximity to each person or project they lead, but overall an awareness of proximity may help them remain closer than they would otherwise be. It can be easy to become distant from delegated tasks, but as a leader, it is essential to remain close enough to retain a clear perspective. Change cannot be expected to happen blindly with an initial burst of energy: it must be guided down a well-defined path.
Proximity, now in its most tangible sense, is something many of us have been deprived of in the past weeks and months. However, as we move forward into the uncertain weeks ahead, we can look to find different ways to express our proximity and support each other from afar.
Castelli, P. A. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112
Huggins, K. S. (2017). Developing Leadership Capacity in Others: An Examination of High School Principals’ Personal Capacities for Fostering Leadership. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 12(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.22230/ijepl.2017v12n1a670
Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or transactional leadership in current higher education: A brief comparison. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18(3), 178–183. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2011). The characteristics of admired leaders. In Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from Books 24×7 e-book database.
O’Toole, J. (2008). Notes Toward a Definition of Values-Based Leadership. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 1(1). Retrieved from https://scholar.valpo.edu/jvbl/vol1/iss1/10