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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #56: The Approachable Leader – Engagement on Steroids

September 24, 2019
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #56: The Approachable Leader – Engagement on Steroids

As we rise up the corporate ladder, we have a tendency to project an ultra-serious demeanor. No matter how high we rise, we are never too important to be approachable. In Episode #56 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, Chris and Perry discuss how to make sure that “the door is always open” is not just a slogan but a reality for your team members.

To cultivate leadership development on your team, consider bringing a 5 Levels of Leadership Workshop to your organization this year.

Read Transcript Below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach. And I’m Chris Goede, Vice President with the John Maxwell Company. Welcome, and thank you for joining. As a reminder, if you’d like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership, or perhaps bring a 5 Levels private training to your organization, please visit While you’re there, if you have a comment or a question for Perry and me, please feel free to leave that as well. We’d love to hear from you.

Today’s topic is titled “The Approachable Leader – Engagement on Steroids.” I love the word “engagement.” It’s a buzzword in corporate cultures. How do I get my team more engaged? How does being approachable affect the engagement level of your team? This is a favorite teaching of mine for leaders who really want to increase effectiveness and increase employee engagement on their teams. A Level 1 position is to think “I’m the boss, and you’re not.” People follow because they have to. Level 2 is where people follow because they want to. If you have a big title, people may naturally put a distance between themselves and you. Being approachable sends a message that you value others. If your role creates distance, real or perceived, you want to close that distance. You’re still the boss. You still have that responsibility, but you want to be approachable so that people are not intimidated by you. They feel like they can talk to you. Authentic leadership: the larger an organization gets, the harder it is to live out. As a leader, the higher you get in your organization, you need to be aware of your approachability. It may not be a problem because of your actions. It may just be an assumption due to some team members’ experiences in other organizations where the leaders didn’t talk to everybody on the floor. So let’s talk about some things that we can do to offset that.

One thing, and it sounds simple but is overlooked by many high level leaders, is to smile more. Somebody once commented to me, “You seem so serious. Why don’t you smile more?” And I said, “I smile all the time!” And they said, “No, you don’t. You’re acting serious.” It was true. It might have been because things were serious. It could’ve been because I thought I was very important, and I needed to look serious. I don’t know what the reason was. I was walking through the airport one day, and I noticed that almost 100% of the people I saw looked like they were going to the guillotine. I thought, “Wow. People do look so serious.” So, I just started smiling at people. If somebody looked at me, I would say, “Hey, good to see ya. Welcome. Hello.” And you know what happens when you smile at people? They smile back⁠—well, except the TSA agents. So, around the office, no matter if you’re one level, two levels, three levels above someone, if you walk with your head down, looking at your phone, not smiling, not looking up, not engaged—that sends the message that you’re not approachable.

I think this is going to become a problem more and more because of how focused we are on our devices, right? It’s something that I even talk to my kids about. There’s a term called RBF, right? People will think, “something’s wrong with him, something’s wrong with her.” Now, listen, I probably have been guilty of being in Hartsfield before and not smiling. If I was one of those passengers, I apologize for that. But if you engage people, they’re going to smile back, and they’re gonna be like, wow, who’s that dude? I know it sounds simple, but we all have a problem doing it. It takes intentionality. It gives off an air of approachability, and it says, “I don’t take myself or my title too seriously.” And it opens a door for conversation. And in addition to smiling, make eye contact! A person at a 5 Levels workshop recently told me the leaders of her organization get in the elevator at the company and don’t even look up. You’re riding in an elevator, you’re in a contained situation with your most important resources. Your most important assets are your people, and you don’t even look up at them. So, do you think that helped her level of engagement or hurt it? I think it probably hurt it. Judging by the fact that she repeated it to the entire group of people, it was a problem.

Another behavior of highly approachable leaders is what I call emotional consistency. This means people can trust how you’re going to respond in good times and in bad times. You’re trustworthy, and I know you’re not going to blast on me. I think consistency is an attribute about a leader that we don’t talk enough about. I think the more consistent you can be, especially emotionally, the more approachable you are. We’ve all worked for leaders in the past where we think, “Not going into that office today…” or “Not gonna talk to him or her today.” There’s this story of an executive assistant that, every day, depending on where that C-suite individual was emotionally, put a red or green coffee mug up. That kind of inconsistency is not what we want. I think the more consistent you are, the more approachable you are. If they’re hesitant, you’re missing out on an opportunity. Emotional consistency will help you with that.

Here’s another one, and I am horrible at this. My wife calls me out on this all the time on this⁠—I have nicknames for everybody. This is so tough, because it gets harder to learn names the larger an organization gets and the more people you interact with. But you’ve got to learn people’s names. People say all the time that the greatest sound people can hear is their own name. So let’s talk a little bit about learning names and the power of that.

This is discussed in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The best sound to anybody is the sound of their name. It makes me feel important when you remember my name. So if you’re not good at remembering names, you need to find a way to do that. Maybe I write down everyone’s name and memorize where they’re sitting. But really recognizing everyone as real people and being authentic starts with knowing people’s names. So if you’re smiling, you’ve got good eye contact, and you can remember people’s names, your team’s engagement will skyrocket. That’s why I say it’s on steroids.

Speaking of being open, what do you think about leaders being more open about their lives to show that they’re normal people? How much do you share? How much do you not? Here’s what I want you to think about: we all started somewhere. When you had just started, what was your perception of the most senior leader on your team? Is that an image that you want to emulate, or is that something you want to stay away from? What was it about them? I promise you, if it is an image you want to emulate, they were very transparent with you. All of us put our pants on the same way, and we get up, we go to work, we solve problems. Yet, some of us, as leaders, aren’t authentic with our team members. It goes back to that Harvard Business Review Study, right? They studied 250 of the top CEOs around the world. They asked what the attributes were about those leaders that make them great. The number one attribute was authenticity. So, as we think about this model, we should think about the 5 Levels of Leadership. When you’re moving up the hierarchy chain, I don’t want you to change who you are. You’re going to grow, you’re going to gain valuable tools as a leader. But, man, if you can just stay authentic, share personal stories, including your failures, you’ll make an immediate connection with your people.

I think stories are great. They kind of take down those walls, whether they’re real or imagined. It kind of speaks to another buzzword in leadership right now: vulnerability. You know, we don’t want to overshare. You don’t want to put your your dirty laundry out there, but you can share your victories and your struggles. If I tell you a story about something I was struggling with, and we get to talking, now I’ve made a connection between us. Get them to share their strengths and struggles. Now you’re making a connection, and that builds authenticity and maybe a little bit of vulnerability. So, by telling stories, getting a little personal sometimes, you project authenticity and increase engagement.

Another way I’ve found to be more approachable, especially in these digitally-charged times that we’re in, is to be present. I have a little sign on my desk that says “be here now.” That is about undivided attention. I wonder what your thoughts are on how we can overcome our focus on these devices and all the distractions around today. It’s something that you and I can continually improve on. I still struggle with it. It’s hard when you have access to all your emails and your texts and social media on top of that in the palm of your hand. If you think about it, whenever we have a down minute, what’s the first thing we do? We pick up our phone and check on it. So, I think what you need to be aware of, especially in your leadership journey, is not being on devices when you’re around people. I’ve shared a story of a good friend of ours down in Texas and his organization. Whenever you walk into their CFO’s office, he shuts his laptop and stands up, comes over, and has a conversation with you. It doesn’t matter if his door is open, what he’s working on, what’s going on. He’s present. He’s approachable. Speaking of stories, I’ve heard you tell a story in one of our 5 Levels workshops recently about being bigger on the inside than you are on the outside. Share that with our listeners today.

Being an approachable leader, to me, is about asking yourself, “Am I bigger on the inside, as a human, than I am on the outside, as a leader?” If you’re bigger on the outside, then you’re just the vice president of such and such, and you use that title as a weapon. This became so clear to me a couple of years ago. When I was a teenager, I collected autographs on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It turned into 200+ signed copies of some of the biggest sports names. One of the ones I didn’t have was Muhammad Ali. I was sitting at my first job, and I saw in the paper that Mohammed Ali was in town to give a speech. I thought, man, I’d love to have that autograph because he was on more Sports Illustrated covers at that time than anybody else. So, I called his hotel. I said, “Is Mohammad Ali registered there?” And they said, “Yes, would you like me to ring his room?” I said, “Absolutely.” It rings twice, and he answers the phone. I said, “Mr. Ali, I’m Perry. I’m from nearby and a big fan of yours. I would love to meet you and get you to sign this magazine.” He asked me where I was and how soon could I get there. He said he would be glad to see me. So, I rushed there. He invited me into his room, and he not only signed my magazine, but he actually turned the pages and talked about the fight. It was 12 minutes out of my whole life, but when I walked away, I thought, this is a person who is as big on the inside as he was on the outside. He was even bigger on the inside, as a human being. He could’ve hung up the phone or yelled at me. He could have done a lot of things to make me small, but he gave me 12 minutes that I absolutely didn’t deserve. He was bigger on the inside, as a man, even than he was on the outside as a champion boxer. Now, every time I’m somewhere, no matter how important somebody thinks I am coming off the stage or coming out of the corner office, I remember to always be bigger on the inside as a human and give people my time.

I don’t know how to top that as we wrap up today. I think that’s a phenomenal story. I would like to challenge you to self-reflect and take some time to think about how it is to be on the other side of your leadership. If you have an inner circle, and you can get some candid feedback, ask them. I think that story is a great way to wrap up and end our time together today. Well, thank you Chris, and thank you all for joining. We’re always grateful that you listened along. Just a reminder, if you want more information about the 5 Levels of Leadership or want to leave us a question or engage with us in any way, you can do that at Thank you very much for joining us at the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.

Leave us your questions below! Also, if you have suggestions for future podcast topics or would like to talk with Chris Goede about helping your company submit your feedback!

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