The principles of remote leadership

The events of 2020 have made The Long-Distance Leader, by Kevin Eikenberry and Wayne Turmel, an extremely timely and important book. A survey from Gartner from over the Summer showed that 82% of business leaders were willing to allow at least a degree of remote-working going forward. An even more notable 47% stated that they intended their employees to work-remote full time. In the face of this new landscape, it is critical for leaders to know how to apply their abilities to meet the demands of long-distance leadership.

Eikenberry and Turmel, both experts on leadership expertise and methods, founded the Remote Leadership Institute back in 2016. They published The Long-Distance Leader in 2018. Now going into 2021, their principles of effectively leading a team while working remote is more relevant now than ever.

At the heart of the book is a solid model of leadership that transcends the exact circumstances of your working environment. The very first of the 19 rules that Eikenberry and Turmel present in the book states exactly that. Good leadership is good leadership. And that always has to come first. If you lack that, it doesn’t matter if you’ve mastered the best technology and workflow tools.

After laying out some other basic ground rules, such as simply coming to terms with the fact that you have to change to adapt to distance-leading, the authors lay out their core model of leadership in Rule 5. They call it the 3 O Model—Outcomes, Others, and Ourselves.

Outcome. In order to succeed as a leader, especially remotely, it’s critical to set clear and actionable goals. You aren’t really leading anyone unless you are leading them towards a specific outcome. The Others are your team. One of the most rewarding aspects of leadership is being able to build trust and relationships and a sense of camaraderie. Finally, Ourselves. Leaders also have to be introspective and recognize the place they play in their teams success.

The Three O Model is all about achieving balance between these different dynamics. Excess in any means failure of leadership. The goal is to avoid being taskmaster, pushover, or diva. Rules 6-19 are all structured around achieving a balance between these three goals and applying that to a remote-work environment.

From this really solid model of leadership in general, the authors then systematically move through the ways it applies to distance-leadership. When they wrote the book, a lot of it was directed towards achieving balance between mixed-location teams, with some people on site and others working remotely. Now that as often as not teams are fully remote, the advice still applies with little change.

Probably the biggest hurdle of remote leadership is the lack of true interpersonal communication. Human beings have evolved for millions of years to communicate face to face, not via Slack or Zoom. You can’t pop in to someone’s office. There are no chance encounters in the hall. No smalltalk around the water-cooler. This can become a serious problem, as it means that it is very hard to build relationships with your team members, and it’s equally difficult for them to build relationships with each other.

A piece of actionable advice that this book commends is that you have to make connections happen. You need to go out of your way to make those trust-building, getting-to-know-you moments happen. Some companies are starting to do virtual coffee breaks and happy hours to achieve exactly that.

Another key takeaway from the book is empathy. Distance-leaders often feel concern that remote workers are less engaged. It’s important to communicate these concerns without being overbearing. To figure out how each individual on your team best communicates in a remote environment. This means you have to encourage feedback and then take it to heart.

Overall, The Long-Distance Leader is a solid read. Give it a look, if you’re interested in learning how to adapt to the new telecommuting world of the 2020s.

The Long-Distance Leader is available for purchase here.

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