Why observation is a leader’s best friend (and 7 ways you can cultivate it)

The art of observation is underrated in leadership.

Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded by many players, managers and analysts to be one of the greatest football managers of all time. In his book, Leading, Sir Alex credits watching amongst his most valuable leadership practices.

"You can see a lot more when you are not in the thick of things...when you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises - and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised. When I stepped back and watched from the sidelines, my field of view was widened and I could absorb the whole session, as well as pick up on players’ moods, energy and habits."

When leaders talk less, listen more - and intentionally watch closely to what is going on around them - they immediately begin to see subtle yet vital details - nuances that enable to lead more effectively.  

Moving into observation mode also helps us to see the bigger picture.

It’s difficult to gain perspective when we are right in amongst the action. Learning when to sit back and observe, as opposed to jump in and act - is a crucial leadership tool, one that is seldom used to its full potential.

When we observe...

  • Patterns, trends, synchronicities and dissonances
  • Body language
  • The interplay between team members or divisions
  • Mood and energy levels at a particular meeting
  • Language, habits and cultural markers in our organisation
  • What lights our people up - and conversely what leaves them flat


...we gain valuable insights.

The paradox is, by doing less (and taking the role of the observer), we can help our team be more productive and creative.

Edgar Scheinrefers, in his book, Process Consultation - Lessons for Managers and Consultants, describes a valuable mental process called O.R.J.I.

Here’s how it works:

Typically, when faced with a predicament, the human psyche follows a pattern.


We Observe and get a picture of what is going on.

We React emotionally to our understanding of what’s happening.

We Judge, and draw conclusions based on our understanding and how it makes us feel, and then;

We Intervene, making decisions and taking action based on what we see, feel and conclude.

Too often, leaders are not spending enough time in the O mode of the ORJI acronym!

Admittedly, staying in Observation can be tough. When problems are pressing, emotions can work against us, often taking us over at the most inadvisable and inconvenient times. We value action - but see here for why stillness is necessary if you're in a leadership role.

Here are 7 ways you can tap into the power of observation and become a better leader:

1. Slow down. To be skilled at observation, you must slow down. Rushing through your day leaves no time to observe the world around you. Reserve a certain amount of time every day to ask yourself - "what is the most important thing for me to focus on today?”  

Build in 10 minutes between meetings to take a breather (not to check your phone), gather your thoughts and establish what energy you want to bring to your next encounter. Back-to-back appointments are counterproductive to developing your observation muscle.

2. Rotate the chairing of your meeting. There’s no reason for you to run your team meetings each time you meet, even if you are the boss or project leader. Take a back seat.

3. Watch what others are doing. Occasionally attend meetings within your broader organisation (make sure you frame it up with them appropriately). You can learn a lot from watching how other divisions within your company operate. You could even ask to observe an analogous company's activities and operating rhythms, if you have a strong relationship with them.

4. Talk less, listen more. Always. Don’t over-contribute. Try to only pitch-in several times throughout the meeting. Ask questions more than you offer your opinion.

5. Focus on body language and non-verbal cues. Focus your attention on watching body language, the interplay between people and the energy in the room. Make this a priority over focusing on the content of the meeting for a change. Directly after the meeting, jot down your observations and insights.

6. Proactively observe yourself. Get a trusted colleague to give you feedback on your observable behaviours and body language in meetings. Many of us have blind spots when it comes to behaviours or physical habits that get in the way of us being effective as leaders.

7. Employ an objective observer to help your meetings improve. Ask a trusted someone (a coach, mentor or peer) to sit in on your meetings over a period of time as an observer and report back on team dynamics, where you all work well and where you are getting stuck as a group. This trick was utilised extensively by CEO of the Year, Alan Mullaly, at Ford, with impressive results.

By stepping into the observer role, you open yourself up to a new way of being that enables you to be more conscious and aware.

Observation is a powerful tool for learning. And it costs you nothing to watch more.

Leonardo da Vinci once extolled the virtues of observation, claiming "Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.”

This meaningful little ditty applies to leadership as much as it does to art.

Suzi McAlpine is a leadership development specialist and author of The Leader's Digest blog.