Sensitive Leadership

By Ian Sampson :

A colleague recently described me as a new age type of leader… sensitive, caring, wanting to serve others. Does that make me a sensitive leader? Yes, and No.

Good leaders use their sense, their sensitivity and their senses in being leaders in the moment.

There is some debate whether the old five senses- touch, sight, sound, smell and taste still are the right and only senses we human beings have.

Be that as it may, good leaders use all their senses when leading effectively.

The wonderful thing about our senses is that they allow us to scan our environment and make assessments about the context in the moment. Effective use of our senses increases our capacity for awareness, both of self and others.


A few years ago there was a management craze about Management By Walking Around (MBWA). It still pervades some management training programs. The central idea was to get managers out from behind their desks and seeing what is going on in their operations. Paying attention. Making observations. Noticing what is really going on. Being aware. Being seen.

One post I read recently included a comment from an executive dean of a university. He “makes it a policy to meet quarterly with the people he manages to ensure they remain engaged and enthusiastic about their work. If not, a candid conversation may open the door to new, more meaningful ways in which that employee can contribute.”

Yeah, right. I can just imagine the rose petals strewn in his path as he deigns to chat with the plebs and reviews the troops. I can just imagine, too, the flocks of “the people he manages” rushing to his door for a candid conversation!

Of course there is another interpretation of MBWA. It involves MBWA … Problems. This can involve literally going around them as if they are not there, like sidestepping a turd on the footpath.

Or MBWA might mean not being stuck, held up, stopped, thwarted, limited by an issue we see and instead ‘finding a way’ around the problem so that outcomes are still achieved. Will you find a way around a problem so that progress is maintained or will you ignore it?

These are just three ways of interpreting how MBWA looks. How do you see things when you are interacting with others?

Here’s a useful way to hone you sense of leadership sight:

Think of a situation that will come up today where you will be a leader.                                            

What will you pay attention to?

What will you need to be very aware of?

What do you notice in just thinking about this right now?

That is Sight Sensitive Leadership.


In December 2015 I travelled to Mexico to be part of a program with leaders from around the world. 260 of us spent 8 days experiencing what actually happens when we are being leaders and experiencing what happens when effective leadership takes place. A good part of the program covered listening. Many leaders think that leadership is about speaking.

Speech acts are one of the ways we move others to action as leaders. When we are speaking as leaders, what we say, and how we say it are deeply listened to by others. In that process, others make assessments about the content of what is being said and whether the person saying it is follow able. That is why face-to-face speaking is so powerful.

Listening is just as important in a conversation as the speaking. Good leaders know how to speak effectively. They also know how to listen effectively. In the course we talked about the listening that goes on in people’s heads as they are listening to what is being said by others. These thoughts, interceptions, interpretations, assessments and the like act like a veil between the listener and the speaker. The speaker has no idea what is going on inside the listeners’ heads but what is going on is what ensures that every single listener gets a completely different and unique experience of what is being said.

Followers who are in a dream, listening to their thoughts etc., can’t get the full unveiled stream of communication. Poor leaders who don’t appreciate the power of clean listening can’t get the reasons why their communication is one sided.

Pay attention to effective leaders who are masterful listeners. As they are speaking they are deeply listening for their listeners. They are not making up stories in their heads about what the listener is thinking. They are making a clearing for communication to occur. How do they do that???????

They create communication by taking responsibility for their own listening. Then they listen from the speaker’s place. As their own internal voice keeps interrupting their thoughts they acknowledge it and take responsibility again for listening and getting what the speaker is really saying. It’s like being present in the place where the speaker is: not “in here”, not “out there”, but “out here” with the speaker.

Here’s a useful practice for building your listening as a leader:

Be aware of the context you are entering.

Recall what your models of thought and leadership are teaching you about the situation

Clarify what you intend to come from the conversation

Deepen your care for the other person Begin the conversation, listening from “out here”

Notice what happens.

That is Listening Sensitive Leadership


So much of what passes for leadership these days is rotten, on the nose. Our political leadership is causing repugnance and recoil. Many are disillusioned that election campaigns, which seem to go now for half the political terms sometimes, are just self-indulgent exercises in casting bread and promising circuses to the masses.

As this smelly phenomenon continues, our so-called political party leaders become ever more isolated from their real role: to provide leadership through the development, articulation and passage of policies that contribute to the advancement of our nation.

The situation is not much better in many organisations, businesses, not-for-profits, entrepreneurial activities, academic and governmental bureaucracies.

For Sight and Listening I have suggested a useful practice. For this one I am struggling! The best I can do is suggest that you:

Try paying extra attention to those who provide leadership in your situation.

What does your sense of smell tell you about their effectiveness?

If it is on the nose, look to your other senses and see if there is a practice you could take on to either help their ineffectiveness or improve your own.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the etiquette of leadership. The notion of etiquette has pejorative implications for many: ideas of class, exclusivity, elitism. But as Elizabeth Post said: etiquette is the science of living.

Leadership etiquette might then mean the science of living a leaderful life. Etiquette is not about how one holds a knife or whether the spoons are in the right order on the table. Etiquette is about taste: doing the right thing, nobly, generously, inclusively, in a quality manner that brings out the best in situations and in others because it brings out the best in us.

Tasteful leadership is that approach to being a leader where others want to come on the journey with us, to explore and embrace the ideas we are presenting, to achieve the goals we are putting forth, to accomplish achievements in the way we are modelling by our own conduct.

Here’s a practice you might like to take on in building your leadership etiquette: think about the qualities of leadership that you love to see yourself practice. Recall those times when you have seen others respond well to your courage as a leader. Incorporate that thinking into who you want to be as a leader going forward

For me the etiquette of my leadership, my tasteful leadership, includes:

Being at peace with my-self.

Relating to others through deep care for them as amazing others.

Conducting myself so that others feel good about themselves and their situation.

What is your leadership etiquette?

Whatever it is, that is tasteful leadership


Some years ago I watched a managing director of a very large organisation ranting at a management retreat. The woman sitting beside him eventually leaned a little towards him, and lightly touched his arm. The effect was electric. Without seemingly noticing the touch, his voice transformed, his volume decreased, his pace slowed and his language became more considered.

We all have the gift of touch as leaders. Sometimes it is a physical touch: embracing another appropriately to show care and concern, helping in a situation where physical effort is required. Sometimes it is metaphorical touch: reaching out to another to make contact, build relationships, promote connections, strengthen connectivity. Of course at the other end of the spectrum, touch can be expressed as force. This is not leadership, so don’t do it.

Here’s’ a practice for you to develop your leadership sensitivity to the power of touch:

In your leadership interactions this week, notice the impact of a slight, appropriate, physical touch offered to another.

Observe the other’s response.

Notice your own response and use it as an opportunity to move your next leadership action to a new place of sensitivity and effectiveness.

Sensitive leadership is not namby pamby stuff. Being sensitive to our self and others in our practice of leadership requires discipline, awareness, courage, intentionality, strength of character, the practice of ethical behaviours at all times. To repeat, good leaders use their sense, their sensitivity and their senses in being leaders in the moment.

Best wishes in your practice of sensitive leadership. I’d be delighted to hear of your experience in this domain.

Ian is a Cause & Effective Associate and Executive Chair of The Leadership Foundation. The Foundation aims to create opportunities and an environment where you can hold yourself to account and provides the mechanisms and time to reflect on who you are, why you choose to lead, and what matters to you most. Ian can be contacted here.


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B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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