Last week, while I was listening to a podcast by the John Maxwell Company, their vice president, Chris Goede, stated, “I think leadership is a visual sport.” 

After hearing this perspective, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

As I began to consider my leadership journey, I realized that I’ve learned the most about leadership with my eyes. I have taken classes for over 25 years, read hundreds of books, been coached, mentored, evaluated, and assessed enough to theoretically fill a library. But I have learned the most with my eyes.

The most important leadership lessons were taught to me by watching others lead. I watched my leaders like a hawk. I wanted to see what they did, consider why they did it, and make sure that I was doing things that reinforced what my leader wanted.

Up, down, across

Along with my leaders, I learned by observing my peers, and by learning from my subordinates or junior leaders who had amazing leadership skills and exercised them like seasoned professionals. There were times when I experienced positive attributes that I wanted to emulate and times when I experienced negative attributes that I wanted to avoid inheriting. Both experiences made the leadership lessons valuable. After all, I was still learning.

I watched my peers all the time. It wasn’t a competition to see who was better. It was a way to check my pulse to see if I was remembering everything I was supposed to be doing. I might have spent four years at West Point and graduated the Army’s premier leadership training program – The U.S. Army Ranger School – but that didn’t mean I had all the answers. I think that I did well enough to fool most people, but I was making constant adjustments based on watching my peers and ensuring that I was at least keeping pace with the amazing leaders that surrounded me every single day.

During my 27 years of service to our nation, I can honestly say most of my learning didn’t come from a leader above me. Quite the opposite, actually. I have learned the most by watching junior leaders – or leaders below me – on the various teams of which I’ve been a part. I’ve learned about empathy by watching them care for their people – how they would teach them, push them, and love them during the roughest of times. I watched them charge into fire fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, nurse their people’s wounds as they recovered from a setback, and hug their people’s neck and cry after the loss of a teammate. I have learned from them what uncompromising standards look like, doing the harder “right”, and pushing yourself beyond your personal limits. 

My junior leaders knew what “right” looked like and demonstrated it every day. They were my teachers.

Adopted behaviors

Based on what I observed from other leaders, I did a lot of experimentation with my leadership style over the years. I would observe the behaviors and attributes that I thought might work, consider how it applied to my context, and strategize ways I might utilize it in my role as a leader. From time to time, the conditions would arise that allowed me to experiment with an idea that I observed from someone else. I would apply the idea or behavior, see how my team reacted to it, and make adaptations to fit our team. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I always learned. 

Each iteration was like trying on a good pair of boots, walking around the room, and seeing how they felt. If it didn’t quite feel right, I would set them to the side and move on to another pair. Experimenting with leadership ideas is the same in many ways. You try new things, see what fits and what doesn’t, and adopt things that work. 

I’ve abandoned a lot of “old boots” along the way, leaving a trail of learning along my leadership journey. Ultimately, you have got to get the perfect fit for you and your team so that you can get the most out of one another. You adopt those behaviors which best help the team achieve the desired outcomes.

You’re being watched

I was constantly watching other leaders to make myself better. Over the years, I realized that I, too, was being watched. From time to time, as I traveled across the Army, I’d come across a teammate from a previous organization where we had shared time together. He or she would remind me of something that we had done together. And on rare occasions, they would remind me of something they had seen me do. Nine times out of ten I had no recollection of the event, but they remembered every detail and could tell me – sometimes painfully – how I had behaved in a certain situation and what they learned from it. I never knew that it happened, but they had picked it up, put it in their pocket, and carried it with them in the years since we had been together.

When it comes to leadership, we learn by watching those who lead us, those who walk by our side, and those who execute our guidance in the interest of achieving organizational objectives. As we learn through experimentation, we adopt behaviors that make us better and discard those lessons that don’t quite fit our style. And we are also teaching. Not necessarily through direct or deliberate engagement, but by being ourselves. 

If you knew that someone was following you around every day, keeping a journal of your leadership attributes, how would you behave? Demonstrating the best version of yourself 24/7 is a high standard, but no one ever said leadership was easy. 

The bottom line: You never know who you are going to influence, or how. But you are influencing others every single day.

After all, leadership is visual sport.