Provision #691: Touch Matters

Laser Provision

When it comes to leadership, it’s not enough to have a clear vision and lots of ideas. It’s not enough to have lots of technical skills as to how to get the job done. One must also have the high-touch skills to galvanize teams and bring people together. That’s especially true when we seek to bring about change in organizations or society. The more of a change-agenda we have, the more important those people skills become. Want to learn what that looks like? Read on.

LifeTrek Provision


Everyone knows that leadership involves vision. If leaders do not have, share, hold, and communicate an attractive and compelling vision of the future, then our leadership lacks something kind of crucial. To quote an ancient scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” That is what kept everyone together through the recent ordeal in Chile: a single-minded focus on bringing the miners out healthy and alive. People the world over are celebrating that triumph of technology, leadership, and faith.

But vision alone will not get the job done. It’s not enough to have a vision; one must also have the right touch when it comes to carrying that vision. I was struck by the President of Chile’s faithful presence over more than 24 hours as the miners were being rescued. The man never left his post. One by one, hour after hour, the President welcomed and hugged each miner as he was brought up from the abyss. There were tears and cheers, embraces and empathy, as the President made clear his commitment to their welfare and well-being.

No wonder President PI’era’s popularity has soared to over 80%. The man knows how to deliver a message, one miner at a time. Each encounter was definitely a high-touch moment. People felt the love and, as a result, they embraced the leader.

In contrast, 16 school superintendents and chancellors from around the United States published “A Manifesto” in the Sunday, October 10, 2010 edition of The Washington Post. The Manifesto, titled “How to fix our schools,” included the following six highlighted sentences:

  • These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.
  • Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials.
  • There isn’t a business in America that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance.
  • We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school.
  • Just as we must give teachers and schools the capability and flexibility to meet the needs of students, we must give parents a better portfolio of school choices.
  • But it’s a problem for all of us • until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems.

Now those sentences sound harmless enough. Who doesn’t want “the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school”? But there is a demanding edge to these sentences that is increasingly getting school leaders into trouble. There is a failure to recognize and embrace the contributions of those who have labored long and hard in the field, especially tenured teachers. Instead of making school improvement a common quest, such Manifestos turn school improvement into a political confrontation.

So it comes as no surprise that Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, DC school system and one of the signatories of the Manifesto, resigned this past week in the wake of the failure of the Mayor who appointed her to get reelected for a second term. The problem for both individuals? It was not that they lacked vision or ideas. They had both in abundance. They lacked touch: the ability to connect with and to evoke positive energy and emotion in the people they work with and serve.

You can get a sense of how that works by reading a follow-up story in Friday’s edition of The Washington Post concerning Michelle Rhee’s interim successor, Kaya Henderson. Henderson apparently shares some of the same background as Rhee, as well much of the same vision and many of the same ideas. But she apparently lacks the demanding edge. Here is what the paper had to say:

  • (Rhee’s departure leaves the District with the following question,) “Can school reform continue with the same velocity and ambition under a leadership that values consensus and collaboration over blunt force and broken crockery?” (Presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C.) Gray wants Henderson to make sure that the answer is yes.
  • (In tapping Henderson), the message Gray wants to send is really about Henderson herself: a gracious but resolute African American woman with deep roots in both the education reform movement and the District.
  • While Henderson was as tough-minded as Rhee when it came to insisting on provisions that made classroom performance a more critical factor in personnel decisions, she managed to do it without alienating those on the other side of the table.
  • “We always had a better taste in our mouth dealing with Kaya,” (said a union representative).
  • (A parent and education policy analyst) said he is hopeful that Henderson will not merely continue Rhee’s policies but also improve on them, especially in the area of teacher professional development, which he says has been overtaken by the emphasis on standardized testing.

The key words in those quotes all reflect the high-touch abilities of great leaders: consensus, collaboration, gracious, resolute, deep roots, without alienating, better taste, and professional development. There’s no way to move groups forward, even if one’s visions and ideas are on target, without those high-touch people skills.

I saw that yesterday at the Baltimore marathon. I was the leader of the 4:45 pace group, which means that I was charged with the responsibility of assisting people who wanted to finish the race in 4 hours and 45 minutes to do just that. I have done this for many years and I love the experience both for the challenge of the task and the quality of the community that gets formed among those who sign up for the pace group.

We take a walk-run approach throughout the marathon, walking one minute and running 4 minutes and 26 seconds every half mile. People enjoy the consistency and the race plan, to be sure. It gives them a can-do sense of confidence. But the real magic happens during those walk breaks. That’s when our high-touch sense of community gets built.

It doesn’t happen by my playing the role of drill-sergeant. I suppose that might work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me and I don’t think it works for most people. To get people motivated and to keep them in the game takes more finesse. It takes humor, encouragement, distraction, rhythm, recovery, and even physical touch.

I was aware this year of giving people more pats on the back, shoulder rubs, and arms around the shoulders than in years’ past. Perhaps that’s why we had more than half the group stay together for more than 24 miles. It was only after we released them, to run strong to the finish, that the group broke up and dispersed. Before that however, we had an experiment in high-touch leadership. And the experiment worked.

If you want to be an effective leader I encourage you to be a high-touch leader. Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, recognizes this as necessary for effective, transformational leadership in the modern world. We’ve progressed, Pink notes, from an Agricultural Age to an Industrial Age, an Information Age, and now a Conceptual Age. In this new Age, what matters most is our ability to create, empathize, recognize patterns, and make meaning together.

What matters, in other words, is our ability to reach out and touch someone. That is not just a good marketing slogan. It is the essence of effective leadership. It is the difference between IQ and EQ, between technical smarts and emotional intelligence. It is the secret to success that I encourage you to cultivate and practice.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of leader are you? How would you rate your ability to touch the hearts of the people you lead? What would help you to develop your emotional intelligence? How could you become more sensitive to the people side of the equation? Who could assist you to make it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Thanks for your Provision, Trust Matters. Reminders about the fundamental value of trust and the consequences to an organization that has lost its trust is valuable. With hard economic times and stress, trust can be fragile. If it is not intentionally nurtured, it can be rapidly destroyed.


You’ve been kind enough to send me your Provisions for several months now. I really like the content and look forward to it as part of my Sunday morning. 

Your shared observations on trust were, I thought, especially telling not only for education but for the unraveling structures in the religious industry. It’s exactly where I see Rome and other hierarchical bodies are failing and falling. Kudos.


May all the gods bless you! I am ever so thankful u share our hearts! Thank you! For sharing and giving life and recognizing life for what it is! I thank you.


Your Provision, Happiness Matters, made a tremendous difference in the tone of our Senior Management Meeting this morning! Thanks for your positive contribution to many, many lives.


Just a note to tell you that I loved Kate’s article on “quieting the noise.” It came at the perfect time and was so well written’that I felt a burst of energy while I was reading it. 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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