Observation – A Critical Leadership Skill

Observation – A Critical Leadership Skill
By Andrew Cox

from http://www.ode.state.or.us/opportunities/grants/nclb/title_iii/27observation_a-critical-leadership-skill.pdf

Leaders know observation skills are critically important to success – in any dimension. They
work hard to develop their own, and to identify the skill in their people.
Leaders rely heavily on the observations of others to test their own impressions, and to add
to their body of knowledge about whatever issue is on the table. Observation is learning on
the fly – it’s not something you sit down to do. And every experience adds to your body of
knowledge, leaving you a top asset to your organization, your industry, your family, and

At the same time that it is such a valuable skill, it’s amazing how little value is attached to it
by many, many managers. Again and again you’ll see people leave a meeting with the
statement that it was a waste of their time. When pressed, they will state that they learned
nothing, or the meeting was inconclusive, or they weren’t the right person the be there, or
they felt muzzled.

A suggestion: the next time you find yourself in a meeting where you feel it’s a waste of
your time, promise yourself that you will take from that meeting at least 3 items of
information – perceptions, opinions, facts, observed behavior, that can be of help in your
work. Then apply those elements to your relationships. It works – most people don’t do it.
Most people don’t become effective leaders. In the case of most people, they don’t even
know observation is a highly prized skill.

If you want to be in the top ten percent of whatever you do, work consciously and hard on
the development of your observation skills. It will pay off – I guarantee it. If you want to be
world class in anything, you gotta develop the skill of observation – seeing the world around
you and seeing it every day, in every way, and make observing a habit of thought. The
price of success is stepping out – observing the world in all its variety, learning from it, and
taking that accumulation of inputs and putting them to use in decision making – in
improving intuition – in building relationships.

Ten behaviors and habits of thought critical for developing accurate observation skills:

  1. Sizing up people – people watching 
  2. Clarity – seeing the world as it is 
  3. Curiosity – asking why 
  4. Listening skills 
  5. Willingness to set aside personal biases 
  6. Willingness to seek the inputs of others 
  7. Seeking out new experiences and possibilities 
  8. Being comfortable with ambiguity Knowledge of the behaviors and attitudes of people 
  9. Self knowledge – accurately knowing your own behaviors, attitudes and personal skills, and 
  10. how they impact others 

It’s easy to get so focused on our own job that we really don’t see the forest for the trees,
even if we’re invited to the highest ranger station in that particular forest.

A personal story:
I was hiking in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and coming down a steep, rocky, narrow
path. Approaching me from below was a young woman, baseball cap pulled down over her
eyes, dark sunglasses, hydration backpack, and earphones. I stepped aside to let her pass –
hikers ascending have right of way – I said “Hello,” and she went past me – within inches of
touching me – without acknowledging me! Wow – two people, close enough to touch, no one
else around, and not so much as a nod.
Just what does this have to do with observation skills? A lot. This hiker was so into her own
zone that nothing around her could enter her consciousness. The birds singing, the green of
spring, the warning rattle of a rattlesnake, the crunch of boots overtaking her, the beautiful
blue sky – none of it could penetrate her “zone.” I see that a lot. Mountain bikers, hikers,
runners- all intent on their journey – oblivious to their surroundings except for what is right
in front of them – and in danger of missing all kinds of messages. Observation? Other than
their own heart rate, miles covered, calories burned, goals met, time elapsed, mountains
climbed, Gatorade consumed, how they feel – they could be in a dark tunnel. Too bad for
them – they miss all kinds of critical inputs that could help them grow and develop and
enjoy the process of gaining physical fitness.
To the extent that we close ourselves off from the unfamiliar; from things that would
challenge us; from things that make us think; from things that disagree with our beliefs;
from things that can stimulate our senses, we create our own little cocoon – that safe place
where we can exist unaffected by all the stuff that swirls around us. Some people call it
focus – I think not.
A suggestion. We all need to gain or regain our sense of wonder about new things. Take a
different route to work, buy a different newspaper, listen to a different news show, take a
run over unfamiliar territory, hike in the woods or mountains – without your IPod, try a
different routine at the gym, eat a meal you have never had before. And observe through all
your senses. Gaining observation skills is an active, exciting process. It’s best accomplished
by sensing – as if for the first time – the world around you, and then seeing more than you
saw the last time.

Try it – today. Become an active observer of life – and gain greater success – in whatever
way you define success.

Andy Cox is President of Cox Consulting Group LLC. The focus of his work is on helping
organizations and their people increase their success in the hiring, developing and
enhancing the performance of leaders and emerging leaders. Cox Consulting Group LLC was
started in 1995, and has worked with a wide range of organizations, managers and leaders –
helping them define success, achieve success and make the ability to change a competitive advantage.

He can be reached at http://coxconsultgroup.com

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