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Faculty Research

Face-to-Face Leadership

When I arrived at BYU eight years ago, I was in my new office, organizing books and filing papers, when I received a telephone call informing me that there had been a glitch in payroll processing, and I would not be receiving a paycheck during the first two months of my employment. I said, “Thank you,” hung up the phone, and started thinking about how to break this news to my wife, Jan. 

Cartoon image of two men looking at each other

Within minutes someone knocked on my office door. It was Ned Hill, then dean of the Marriott School. I made a place for him to sit down as he explained that he had just heard the news about the payroll glitch and wanted to know what he could do to help. I could see the sincerity in his face and hear the concern in his voice. In one hand he was holding what appeared to be his personal checkbook. In the other hand he was holding a pen, already clicked. After I assured him that my family would be fine, he asked about our move to Utah, my plans for research and teaching, and so forth. We talked briefly, and he left.

Through Ned’s five-minute visit, he quickly won me over. Instead of calling me to his office, sending me an email, or delegating the matter, he had walked across the building to have a face-to-face conversation. Although our interaction was brief, I felt heard, understood, and valued. Sometimes it seems that part of being a professor is complaining about university administration—at most universities, that’s the glue that holds the faculty together. But when Ned talked to our faculty, people listened receptively. When he gave new directions, people followed respectfully. And when he invited people to contribute money to expand the Tanner Building so the school could grow, the faculty gladly opened their personal checkbooks with pens clicked. 

Our new dean, Gary Cornia, also practices the power of face-to-face leadership. To have a conversation with Gary is to feel like you have a friend in the Dean’s Office. And that’s my topic today: the everyday and relatively private conversations whereby leaders change people and transform organizations.

Face-to-Face Leadership 

For about sixteen years, I have been doing research that relates to organizational behavior and leadership. My approach has been anthropological: rather than study people in the context of a laboratory, I study them in their natural environment. I go into organizations and use cameras and microphones to capture their behavior “in the wild,” making recordings that I can analyze. For me, leadership is not an abstract concept but rather a rich description of what people actually do.

When I want to observe and assess a leader’s effectiveness, one of my favorite places to look is at moments of transition. Like the green that grows in the cracks of a sidewalk, leadership usually springs to life between activities and at the edges of events.

For example, when I videotape a board meeting, I usually start recording before anyone has entered the room because the most important displays of leadership may happen before the meeting actually begins. “Boundary moments,” such as the openings and closings of conversations, are especially revealing.1

To illustrate, consider the opening of a telephone conversation, transcribed as follows:

  1. Art: Hello?
  2. Bob: Hey.
  3. Art: HEY!
  4. Bob: HEY!
  5. Art: What’s happening?
  6. Bob: Hey, buddy?
  7. Art: Is this my buddy?
  8. Bob: Hey, you ain’t got no buddies.
  9. Art: What’s happening?
  10. Bob: Hey.
  11. Art: HEY! You ready for Thanksgiving?
  12. Bob: Yes.
  13. Art: ALL RIGHT!

Within thirteen seconds, Art and Bob do important work. When Art picks up the phone and says hello, he shows that he is available. When Bob says “Hey” at line 2, he shows that he can recognize Art’s voice. When Art repeats “HEY!” at line 3, he loudly and enthusiastically shows both recognition and regard. Through the next eleven lines of conversational play, such as their inane repetition of the words “hey” and “buddy,” they quickly communicate at least four important messages:

  • I hear you.
  • I understand you.
  • I like you.
  • I can work with you.

Art does not assert his power over Bob. He does not invoke an organizational title. Instead he engages with Bob to interactively instantiate a close, cooperative relationship, which may help their organization thrive.

In contrast, consider an excerpt from a different conversation within a different organization. The owner of the company (“Mark”) is talking to his management team at the start of a two-hour meeting. 

Mark: Ok, where I’m at, I have to look at the assets in each and every one of you. ’Cause, you know, I could get real caught up in the negatives of each and every one of you. I don’t do that. Uh, even with her I don’t do it. She’s valuable. She, you know, maybe she doesn’t have the ability to MOVE with the company. She’s more stationary in what her thought is.

Cartoon of a meeting room

In a variety of ways, Mark asserts his power and position through what he says and how he says it (see illustration at right). First, he dominates. Through talk, he occupies the conversational floor by delivering a monologue about the way things are, rather than a dialogue that invites and includes. Through posture, he dominates the room by leaning back in his chair and fully extending his legs. Second, he creates social distance. While sitting at the far side of the conference table, he separates himself from his managers by using the pronouns “I” and “you” rather than “we.” Third, he elevates himself. His words depict others as the object of his scrutiny at the same time that he literally lifts himself—or at least his feet—above the others. The coordination of his talk and spatial maneuvers constitute a strong display of organizational status and power.

These two excerpts are extreme and contrasting. Please don’t think that one form of leadership is correct while the other is wrong. Rather, these extremes represent two ends of a continuum along which leaders work from day to day. Sometimes leaders need to foster close relationships of relative equality. Occasionally strong displays of power may be necessary. Usually leaders must achieve an appropriate balance according to the contingencies of their situation—and that’s the hard part.

Within the MBA program, I teach required courses on leadership, using the best readings I can find. But books are often a poor substitute for observation and experience. Most books on leadership contain long lists of dos and don’ts that have been abstracted from the situations that make them meaningful and relevant. I believe that the best way to learn about leadership is to work closely with a great leader and to carefully watch what he or she does across a variety of circumstances—because we tend to become like the people that we attend. If working closely with someone is not possible, then I encourage students to read the biographies of great leaders because stories keep the lessons of leadership alive. 

Face-to-Face Leadership of Joseph Smith 

Joseph Smith was a great leader. In his day thousands of converts crossed the world in an effort to be near him. Today thousands of missionaries cross the world in an effort to be like him. What did the leadership of Joseph Smith look and sound like, moment to moment and day to day? Unfortunately, we don’t have video recordings to analyze, but we do have the written accounts of those who were there. Their journals are like anthropological field notes that give us a rich description of what he actually did. For example, consider a few excerpts from the journals of early Saints who gathered with him at Nauvoo, Illinois:

In 1841 Heber C. Kimball arrived with more than 100 immigrating Saints. He recorded: “We landed in Nauvoo on the 1st of July, and when we struck the dock I think there were about 300 Saints there to meet us, and a greater manifestation of love and gladness I never saw before. President Smith was the first one that caught us by the hand.”2

In 1844 Thomas Steed crossed the Atlantic: “The Prophet Joseph was at the pier. At first glance I could tell it was him. . . . He came on board to shake hands and welcome us by many encouraging words, and express his thankfulness that we had arrived in safety.” 3
Christopher Layton was another British convert: “There stood our Prophet on the banks of the river to welcome us! As he heartily grasped our hands, the fervently spoken words, ‘God bless you,’ sank deep into our hearts, giving us a feeling of peace such as we had never known before.”4

The Prophet understood, or at least practiced, the power of face-to-face leadership. Although terribly busy, he attended other people’s transitions, making them his own boundary moments. His behaviors communicated:

  • I see you.
  • I understand you.
  • I love you.
  • I want to work with you.

He powerfully embodied what his words described.

How did Joseph Smith become such a powerful leader, capable of changing people and transforming a worldwide organization? One answer is that he worked closely with a great leader and carefully observed what He did across a variety of circumstances. With the First Vision, Joseph entered into an apprenticeship with the Lord and gradually became more like the leader he attended.

Another answer is that Joseph read the scriptures, which contain the biographies of great leaders, including Jesus Christ. By continually studying and eventually translating sacred texts, the Prophet must have gleaned lessons of leadership from the various stories and situations that make those lessons meaningful and relevant. 

Face-to-Face Leadership of Jesus Christ

During the openings of social encounters and organizational events, participants must quickly negotiate their relationship or way of being together. In 3 Nephi 11: 13–15 we read one of the most sacred accounts of face-to-face leadership ever recorded:

And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto them saying: Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record. 

The scriptures tell us that they all went forth, one by one, “about two thousand and five hundred souls” (3 Nephi 17:25). You do the math: if each person faced the Lord for only five seconds, the process lasted about four hours. Through His investment of time and effort, the Lord briefly but unmistakably communicated to each individual:

  • I see you.
  • I know you.
  • I love you.
  • I have died for you.

The closing of the Savior’s visit, another boundary moment, was at least as powerful and sacred as the opening. In 3 Nephi 17:4–5 we read:

But now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel. . . . And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.

Cartoon of two men shaking hands

Not only did the Lord stay a little longer, He wept with them, blessed their little ones, and taught them things too sacred to be recorded. For those of us who are preoccupied with time management, the Lord provided a lesson in leadership: evidently, the God of the universe changed or delayed His schedule to answer the silent prayers of those who were looking to Him. He confirmed that our prayers are not a monologue about the inevitable but are rather a dialogue that invites and includes us.

Sometimes the glorious accounts of scripture seem far removed from our condition. Within organizations, including our university, people too often feel lonely, isolated, and confused. Ironically, this kind of alienation comes, “not from a lack of communication, but from a surplus of the wrong kind.”5 Our lives are awash with memos, emails, and instant messages, which are sometimes helpful and efficient, but they are also flat and faceless—easily discarded, deleted, and ignored. 

The faith that brings us together at this university also teaches the importance of face-to-face leadership. Although loneliness may be a universal condition, face-to-face leadership is our eternal end. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). 


Written by Curtis LeBaron
Illustrated by Jon Krause

About the Author
Curtis LeBaron (PhD, University of Texas at Austin, 1998) is currently an associate professor of organizational leadership and strategy and a Warren Jones Fellow within the Marriott School, where he teaches MBA courses on leadership and international human resources. He has had faculty appointments at several universities, including University of Colorado at Boulder (1998–2001), University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (2007), and Oxford University in England (2008). In 2010 his book, Embodied Interaction, will be published by Cambridge University Press. For the summer of 2010, he has received a grant from the European Union to conduct research on business strategy as a form of organizational practice.



  1. Curtis LeBaron, Phillip Glenn, and Michael Thompson, “Identity Work during Boundary Moments: Managing Positive Identities through Talk and Embodied Interaction,” in Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation, eds. J. Dutton and L. Roberts (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  2. Fred E. Woods, Gathering to Nauvoo. American Fork, Utah. Covenant Communications (2002): 85.
  3. Ibid., 87.
  4. Ibid., 87.
  5. Edward Hallowell, “The Human Moment at Work,” Harvard Business Review (January–February 1999): 60.