Virtual is not a synonym for invisible.

What has changed in leadership? Not much I like to say, but of course there have been a few changes over the millennia.

What it takes to lead is timeless. Leaders lead for the betterment of others. To do this they become a presence in the lives of those they lead. Presence once came automatically with hierarchy. There are far fewer layers of management; managers are encouraged to make decisions without approval from on high as long as they are working within strategic imperatives. A leader’s presence becomes more stretched, and in some cases more dilute.

Women in management is a sea change. Women managers, an oddity forty years ago, are commonplace. Not enough are in positions of the highest authority, but that too is changing as more and more women become CEOs. Women leaders excel in presence because most have a keen sense of what it means to be present in the lives of their employees.

Velocity and globalism, too, alter the leadership landscape. What happens in one part of the world can impact another within a short period of time. Take Covid-19, for example. A physician friend said to me that if this virus had occurred in Wuhan forty years ago, it would not be a story.

And that brings me to the change many millions of us are facing today: working outside the office, chiefly from home. We lack the camaraderie of our colleagues, and we lack the presence of our boss. For some, this is a relief. But it should not be allowed to negate the need for and the imperative of leadership presence.

Absence when it comes to leadership does not make the heart grow fonder. It does the opposite. When the boss is not around, people forget about him and do their own thing. They also get the feeling that the boss cares little for him and so they return the favor by caring for their company.

Need for presence

Now more than ever, we need leaders to exert themselves to be seen and heard. Technology improves visibility and messaging. We are all as proximate as our nearest Zoom, Skype, WebEx meeting. Virtual proximity, however, does not automatically closeness, or more importantly, connectedness.

My colleague, Ron Carucci, who leads Navalent, a consultancy firm that helps teams with strategy and performance, believes that virtual leadership comes down to presence. Since we cannot be there, we must be felt there.

Presence for leaders means being accessible to others—letting people know that you are available to listen as well as to support. A fully present leader is one who is engaged in the work and conversant with the people who do the job. Doing this virtually is not easy.

To be present in a virtual world, the leader needs “reach out and touch”—metaphorically speaking. You connect with people via text, email and video. You “touch” them when you share yourself with them. You share your personal story and, in turn, listen to theirs. There can be an intimacy that develops between people when they are apart if they regularly stay in touch with one another.

Working in isolation can lead to feelings of dislocation and even disengagement. That is why a leader who can make her presence felt through her words, and her example will be one that others want to follow and go the extra mile for—even when they are housebound.

Someday a new form of normalcy will evolve. In what shape and in what form is undetermined, but we know that we will need leaders to guide us. Leaders who are present throughout these challenging times will be those who set the course for our new tomorrow.