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Virtual Leadership in Today's Workplace

By Evan Offstein, Contributing Editor and Jason Morwick

Article Sponsored by: Vinnell Arabia

In the early 1980s, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman introduced an idea in their bestselling book, "In Search of Excellence," which continues to influence thought and practice to this very day. The idea was a leadership tactic labeled MBWA, Management by Walking Around, the essence of which is that good managers physically interact with their staff and employees through personal meetings, impromptu visits, or some other face-to-face contact. While valid at the time, it is now necessary to revisit this concept to see if it still holds. We argue that while in some cases it may still apply, it no longer carries the day as the dominant leadership logic.

The future of leadership is the ability to lead virtually. The leaders that rise to the top will be the ones that can fuse technology and leadership to lead teleworkers, telecommuters, and virtual teams. Make no mistake, the leadership abilities and skills of the past may get you by in the present, but will not suffice in the future.

For instance, one of the leadership skills that needs an overhaul is communication. In the old style, meaning could be inferred by body cues and body language, since researchers estimate that 50 to 70 percent of a message may be communicated via body language.

With employees and followers scattered across the globe, leaders must revisit how they communicate without the physical interaction of MBWA. We offer a couple of solutions.

First, leaders must learn the communication media of the modern world. This includes Web conferencing, e-mail, and texting. Second, leaders need to rely on telephonic voice communication to deliver deeper and more embedded meanings. We found that the very best virtual leaders could actually read between the lines of a series of e-mails and texts to find the true substance of a message.

More importantly, we found that leaders need to be even more results-driven in a virtual world. Under MBWA, leaders could manage processes by physically watching people work; however, we discovered that many leaders got bogged down in the processes to the point where micromanaging became the norm. In the virtual world, leaders must devise key performance metrics and outcomes and then hold their employees to these standards and timelines. This works best when trust is involved and here is where new and old leadership styles do not differ - the mechanisms of building trust are the same in the physical world as they are in the virtual world. This means treating people with respect.

This means holding and not betraying confidences, keeping your commitments and promises that you make to others, and managing expectations.

This means taking care of your people to ensure that they have the necessary tools to succeed in the virtual world - whether that tool is technology or training. As a leader, you will create a culture of trust if you provide your virtual team the resources to succeed.

We will discuss other details in future articles on how to improve your virtual leadership capability. The future is now and you must adapt your leadership style accordingly.

Dr. Evan Offstein and Jason Morwick are the authors of "Making Telework Work: Leading People and Leveraging Technology for High-Impact Results." Visit them at

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