The Power of Absence: Leading when presence is impossible and life goes virtual
Sep 22, 2020
“What am I going to do now?” asked Pastor Joe. “We are right in the middle of our annual strategic planning meetings. The team is finally coming together, collaboration and creativity are rising and most of all, I think they ‘get’ me and the vision.”
As the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 unfolded, I began to hear concerns like these from leaders all over the world as they expressed frustration with the unique challenges brought by isolation and social distancing. Like many leaders, Pastor Joe had to pivot fast and hard when in-person meetings became impossible and life went virtual.
Then, as days turned into weeks, I noticed a surprising new phenomenon—these same leaders, in ministry and the marketplace, began telling me a different story. They were feeling stronger, more productive and even more fulfilled.
What happened? It was the power of absence.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. While this maxim may be a source of comfort to someone facing separation from a loved one, no one has ever suggested it as a principle of leadership. If anything, leaders are encouraged to “be present,” to “engage” and to “manage by walking around.” Negative stereotypes abound of the missing CEO hobnobbing on the golf course while his minions slave away in the office.
Perhaps it is these deeply ingrained expectations that have made the Coronavirus pandemic so challenging for those of us who see physical presence as a key instrument in our leadership toolbox. In a matter of days, we went from face-to-face engagement to exclusively digital connection, and even the most technology-savvy of us discovered the limitations of virtual leadership.
The feelings that followed ranged from strangely productive—as our calendars cleared and our travel schedules evaporated—to helpless and untethered, longing for human connection unmediated by a glowing screen.
But what if absence were an asset? What if there were a way to leverage it for the development of the people we lead and the maturity and fruitfulness of the organizations we’ve been called to steward?
No one modeled this more dramatically than Jesus—to the shock and (temporary) disappointment of His disciples. Prior to His death, Jesus prepared them for His departure and stated, “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7, NIV).
The fulfilment of Jesus’ mission intentionally depended on His absence. And many leaders today are discovering the possibilities of what happens when we take our hands off the wheel. The following are 13 unexpected truths I have discovered about the power of absence.
- It is your absence that communicates trust in your leaders. I learned this more than 10 years ago when we started a Bible college in India. Although we appointed Indian believers to lead the institution, they wanted me to be engaged in decision making from the start—which was not my intention.
In order for them to be empowered, they had to be trusted. And the only way I could convey that trust was by allowing them to make decisions in my absence, to come up with their own solutions. I discovered, perhaps counterintuitively, that the more I stayed out of it, the better off they did. For many years, I would only visit the school for two days ever year and say hello. When leaders know they don’t need anyone hovering over them, ownership emerges.
- It is your absence that loans credibility. When another leader is allowed to make decisions, it gives them more credibility. This credibility is loaned first, and then earned as the person demonstrates trustworthiness and competence. For example, it’s an honor to be invited to the pulpit when the pastor is present, but the highest respect that one leader can give to another is to invite them to speak when they are not there. Absence of the primary leader can create credibility for the people to whom they have entrusted leadership and stewardship when they are away.
- It is your absence that allows the next leader to emerge. It’s difficult for new leaders to be identified when there are strong leaders already in charge of an organization. New leaders emerge with more credibility and trust when the primary leader is not there. Decisions, conversations and course corrections all have to be made in real time, and the top leader may not be immediately accessible to provide input. It is in these moments that new leaders come to the forefront—leaders who may be invisible in normal situations.
- It is your absence that exposes your organizational strengths and weaknesses. As long as you are there as the primary leader, you mitigate weaknesses and strengths. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s your job. You run interference. You are the parent, the decision maker. You do these things unconsciously, because that is part of the culture of your organization.
But when you are not there, you find out who can really manage, what processes and systems will flow on their own and where you are really needed or not needed. In order for you as a leader to be a better steward of your time and energy, you should be disengaged where you are not needed. It is when you are absent that you discover where you are not needed and where your engagement is still required.
- It is your absence that confronts your leadership insecurities. I’ve got to be there. I’ve got to run that meeting. If I’m not there, it won’t be done the right way. If I’m not there, things won’t happen. Your insecurities become either exaggerated or minimized in your absence. When you have to do things through other people, you come face to face with your insecurities. Your absence reveals “you” to yourself. How empowering or controlling you are? How much of a micromanager you are? How willing are you to release the reigns and empower others?
- It is your absence that allows you to create margin in other areas. When you are not there, all of the sudden, you have more time to think and to pay attention. New spaces are created in your life. The greatest resource a leader brings to an organization is his or her attention. Out of attention comes money, personnel, facilities, resources and budgeting. Absence provides the margin necessary to pay attention to the things that matter—to define your own workflow to reflect the priorities of your strategies, rather than allowing others to define it for you. As long as you are present, it is hard to create margin.
- It is your absence in some areas that increases your presence in other areas. This is a corollary of the previous point. It’s one thing to disengage—that’s called vacation, but it’s another thing to engage with something else. This is the time to ask yourself, What have you always wanted to engage in or leave behind, if you had the time to do so? Well, now you do.
- It is your absence that creates a culture of collaboration. When you are not there as the primary leader, the team has to work. Imagine a game without the coach. All of a sudden, the team needs to collaborate, and if the coach is not calling the collaboration from the sidelines, the team has to adapt to find a winning formula. Don’t underestimate your team’s ability to adapt to your absence and discover solutions that you may have assumed could only emerge when you are in the room.
- It is your absence that exposes pockets of control and bottlenecks in the organization. Not everything that is revealed in your absence is positive. When you are there, you can read the room and see who’s controlling, who is passive aggressive. You can sense the nuances of what is going on. In your absence, you may find out who the control freaks are. Who wants to get the credit. Who’s not letting go. The dysfunctions of the organization will surface in your absence, and you will need to be proactive to address them.
- It is your absence that shows if your organization has incarnated your vision. Your vision is incarnated when decisions are being made based on the vision, not simply on the incremental instructions you may give your team when you are present.
Jesus told His disciples that the mission He had called them to accomplish would not happen “unless I go away…” (John 16:7). As we read in the book of Acts, it was in Jesus’ absence following the ascension that crucial decisions shaping the future of the church were made. Jerusalem was the ecclesiastical crossroads of the world, and Antioch was the commercial crossroads.
As the gospel spread after Jesus’ ascension, the apostles—led by the Holy Spirit—relocated the headquarters of the church from Jerusalem to Antioch. This was a decision made in Jesus’ absence, but it aligned with Jesus’ vision for His church to go global.
Similarly, in Acts 15, during the Jerusalem Council, the decision was made to embrace gentiles—without requiring them to be circumcised—another decision made in Jesus’ absence that, nevertheless, aligned with His vision. Without these decisions, Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism.
- It is your absence that upgrades decision making dynamics. As long as you are there, everyone will look to you to make the decision. They will acquiesce to you, regardless of whether or not your ideas are superior. People may not be as open and candid in their conversations if you are present. In your absence, more people can bring their ideas to the table, leveling the playing field and opening the door for contributions from wise yet reticent people on your team.
- It is your absence that improves execution and follows through. As long as the primary leader is there—monitoring, executing, receiving reports—things go differently. When you are absent, you start seeing if things can happen when you are not there. Every leader should be laying a groundwork for their organization to be sustained after them. While you may want to scale your organization, ultimately you will want it to have deep and sustainable roots to support your vision when you are no longer on the scene.
- Finally, it is your absence that makes you a better leader. I know I’m a better leader when I’m not there. My leadership is tested by my followership, not by my ability to cajole and drive. I’ve often heard from pastors who say, “Man, my church grew when I was not there!” It can be humbling to discover that you are not indispensable.
I know the power of absence can be misunderstood and that absence can become dysfunctional and even detrimental. However, like any tool in your leadership tool chest, if understood and utilized well, it can be very effective.
“I can’t believe how strong my team has become,” Pastor Joe told me in a recent phone call.
“That’s only partially true,” I replied. “Your team had the right muscles all along, and your absence made those stronger. Going forward, don’t revert to your defaults, and keep working those muscles.”
This article was extracted from Issue 2 (Summer 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
This article was written by Sam Chand
Sam Chand has served as senior pastor, college president, chancellor and president emeritus. A consultant and mentor to leaders of leaders, Sam Chand’s singular vision for his life is to help others succeed. Sam Chand develops leaders through consultations, books and speaking engagements. Leaders are using Sam Chand's books as handbooks worldwide in leadership development.
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