Meet Them Where They Are

Leadership that starts from the individual realities in your company can be transformative
November 22, 2018 Updated: November 26, 2018

As I travel around the country speaking and training on relationships, human connections, and all the skills that we use as Green Berets, I see there’s a real disparity between senior leaders and the folks in the trenches that are doing the heavy lifting.

How do we combat that? By meeting them where they are and not where you want them to be. That is a timeless adage from U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. Special Forces teams go into rough places, outnumbered and outgunned, and stay for a long time to mobilize people from the inside out to stand on their own. In order to do that, we have to meet people where they are not where we want them to be, not with brute force or coercion.

How do you put this into play in your own life? In your own business? There are three things that you can do today, right now to see an immediate shift.  

First thing is to embrace local realities. In Afghanistan, our team leaders grew beards. We wore indigenous clothing. We sat in the circle of a tribal jirga. We had no agenda, no PowerPoint. We understood the value of long-form communication, physical connection, story, and status. We worked within those realities. We didn’t crash our way into those villages in body armor and velcro looking like RoboCop.

The same is true in your world. If you’re a senior leader, are you aware of what your employees’ micro realities are? They’re not going to tell you a damn thing. They’re not going to share anything with you until you appreciate and embrace local realities for what they are. To do that, you’ve got to lean in, seek to understand. You’ve got to actively listen. You have to make authentic human connections.

The second step is to understand the human terrain inside your business. Who are the relevant players? What do you know about them? Do you even know their backstory of how they came to the company? Have you ever asked to hear it? Do you know what makes them tick? Do you know what keeps them up at night? Have you ever mapped out the social networks inside your business, and the relationships, and the tensions that exist there? Take the time to understand who the connectors are in your relevant arena, who are the champions, and the people with influence.

On the flip side, what is the level of trust erosion inside your business? Have you ever tried to assess it? It can be measured. Trust can actually be measured in time, and money, and transaction cost. What is the erosion of trust in your business, inside your human terrain? What is the level of conflict that is persistent there? Is conflict the default mechanism within your human terrain? Understand and appreciate the human terrain and understand the local realities that exist there.

Finally, who are your resilient leaders inside your organization? Who are the leaders out there in the trenches capable of getting things done in a big way? The resilient leader is not always the first person that walks up to you and says, “Hi, I’m in charge.” A lot of times that’s the one you have to watch. The true resilient leaders, the leaders without titles, the leaders that people look up to and follow, are the ones that don’t need to step up and get in the spotlight because they’re already leading. They know where they stand.

Are you trying to find them? Are you trying to seek them out? Do you empower them? If you do, if you establish relationships with the resilient leaders, the leaders who lead when nobody’s looking, that’s when your company or organization can exponentially extend its value, stability, and resilience to weather storms. Those are the people you want in your team, in your tribe, in your board meetings. You want to seek them out because they are influencers, and they’re not going to come up and tell you that, you have to earnestly do the work to seek them out. By embracing local realities and working the human terrain, you’ll start to find your resilient leaders.

As those relationships start to grow, you will start to see reciprocity. Said another way, you’ll start to see people in your sphere who want to do things for the company, want to tell the company’s story, want to stay a little later, want to do that extra work, want to work a little harder because of pride in the mission, because of shared struggle and shared experience. Pretty soon that reciprocity turns to loyalty. This isn’t a theory. I’ve seen this over and over again in the most dangerous places on earth. 

And what works in life and death, works in life and business.

Meet them where they are not where you want them to be. Appreciate the local realities. Learn to read the human terrain. Look for those resilient leaders, and you’ll find yourself surrounded on purpose and leading from the rooftop.

Until next time, I’ll see you on the Rooftop.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on CNN, Bloomberg, Fox Business News, and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit