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Are You a Travel Agent or a Tour Guide?

Too many leaders are like travel agents – they want to send people where they’ve never been.
— John Maxwell

Over the summer months millions of people worldwide spent time vacationing, traveling and sightseeing. As many travelers were largely unfamiliar with their desired destinations (assuming that they even know where they want to go), they needed to rely heavily on the knowledge and experience of two kinds of travel professionals: travel agents (for those who still use them) and tour guides. Despite the proliferation of online content (not to mention booking and other tools), many folks still lean on professionals to guide them through the travel experience.

While both serve important, related roles in ensuring an enjoyable vacation experience, there are some significant differences between them. For starters, agents do their work on the front end of the travel process. In contrast, only after the decision is made to visit a particular locale can a tour guide be engaged for service. Second, travel agents often sell vacation packages to destinations that they have never visited. A tour guide, on the other hand, needs to be intimately familiar with any area that they service, including its history, culture, venues, best times to visit attractions, etc. No tour guide can lead others effectively without having been there first and studying its details thoroughly. Nor can they just hand their clients a map or GPS for the day together with some pamphlets. They need to be present throughout the process both physically and mentally, guiding, teaching and sharing their passion about each place that they visit.

John Maxwell has used this analogy to distinguish between ineffective leaders and their effective counterparts. The former will give their people direction without having (or at least sharing) any personal experience of what things will be like when they arrive. Great leaders, in contrast, offer their people direction while also participating personally in the journey. Their people are more confident knowing that their leader has been down the road before and is invested and present in the work that will be needed to effectively reach the desired destination.

(Of course, such thinking is not new. In biblical tradition, some of the greatest leaders (Abraham, Moses, David, etc.) were shepherds. They began by caring for a flock of sheep, tending to their needs and leading them to pasture. After demonstrating deep care and concern, they were promoted, as it were, to tend to a more significant flock.)

Another way to connect with and lead employees is to actively connect with them on a regular basis. Hewlett Packard (HP) founders William Hewlett and David Packard used a strategy that has become known as MBWA, or Management By Wandering Around. As its name implies, MBWA requires regular walking throughout the workplace. It offers many benefits to leaders and their employees, such as…

  1. Awareness – Walking around can give you a better understanding of the functions and processes around you. This could be crucial as you begin the decision-making process and want to be able to keep all important information under consideration.
  2. Relationship building – Your workers will start to feel that you care about what they do and who they are and will come to appreciate you for it. It will also raise workplace morale, knowing that you are committed to them and their success.
  3. Approachability – The more that you are around, the more that people begin to view you as another person and not simply a distant boss. That, coupled with your proximity, makes it likelier that they’ll tell you what’s really going on. You may learn about issues before they become real problems.
  4. New ideas – Oftentimes, creative thoughts occur “in the moment” and not at formal meetings. Your presence promotes casual discussions, so people will more likely feel free to come to you with their ideas.

Regardless of one’s approach, the main idea is that leaders who want to best inspire their team and ensure its success need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Sure, there is place for delegation. But, as Maxwell has shared elsewhere, leaders can give over large segments of the job once they have helped to launch their team on its journey and makes sure to circle back to ensure a successful conclusion.

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