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Approachability – The Often-Overlooked Leadership Skill

By Paige Kassalen

Have you ever heard someone describe a leader by saying “wow, they are so intimidating”? I know I have felt intimidated before, in meetings with a leader of my company, or at a conference listening to someone very accomplished talk about their work.

The “old school” mentality was that it was good to be feared. If you were intimidating, people thought you were serious and somehow better at your job. However, waiting to induce fear or awe of yourself  only results in an ego boost that often ends up causing long-term harm to the team, and may very well limit its ability to produce strong results for you as a leader.

If you think back to a time when you felt intimidated by a leader, did you ever connect this with the idea that being intimidating results in an ineffective team? I did not — until I started working closely with someone who was truly a great leader at a previous company. He taught me that leaders should strive to be seen as approachable, not intimidating. Once I thought about it, this idea made total sense because approachable leaders:

Hear the Truth, Without the Sugar Coating

As a leader, you have the power to fix issues, but you cannot do that if you don’t know what those issues are. Have you ever thought “Why is no one fixing this huge problem?” The challenge is that this problem, cultural or procedural, may seem “huge” to you, but the leader may not even be aware it exists.

Think of it this way. If you were intimidated by someone, would you feel comfortable approaching them and telling them about the problem? Most likely not, and this results in problems remaining unsolved —and an unhappy team. Instead, approachable leaders hear the whole truth — good and bad — because the team feels comfortable approaching them and speaking freely.

Add More Value to the Team

Leaders are placed into a certain role for a reason, so a leader should be a contributing part of the team, because their perspective will only make the results stronger.

When a team member makes a mistake or is completely stuck on a problem, they will surely think twice before expressing their concerns to a leader they fear because they do not want to be judged. The member, or even the rest of the team, might decide to hide the problem or exclude the leader from conversations or meetings simply to avoid having an uncomfortable interaction with them.

If you are an approachable leader, team members will consistently consult you, ask for advice, and seek your guidance, as needed, during good times and bad along the project continuum.

Set a Positive Tone and Build an Inclusive Culture

You are always representing something bigger than yourself, especially as a leader. The way you act and are perceived by others does not just affect your immediate team, but instead the whole organization, including customers or key stakeholders outside the company. Talent attraction and retention is important for any organization, and welcoming new employees into a culture where leaders lead by fear and intimidation will not make employees want to stay and help achieve organizational goals at any level.

Approachable leaders create a culture of open communication, which results in empowered employees and more collaborative problem solving.

How Can You be a More Approachable Leader?

The dream situation for a leader is to know what challenges exist, share their valuable expertise with the team, and form a culture where collaboration and open communication is celebrated.

If you want to try to be a more approachable, here are a few ideas:

  • Do not always take yourself so seriously – show your team that you make mistakes too and are not perfect. This could be something as simple as telling a personal story about what you did over the weekend or talking about something you did wrong in a presentation the week before.
  • Never shoot down someone’s idea – if their idea will not cause harm to another person or other aspects of the organization, there is no reason to immediately reject someone’s idea. Listening is the best leadership skill you can develop. It may be that you need to decide against moving a certain idea forward, due to additional factors, but when one rejects voluntary brainstorming and problem-solving ideas too fast, the leader reduces the chance that person will speak up again.
  • Be the leader you want to have – At the end of the day, we are all human beings. We like to laugh, make genuine connections, and receive compliments when we do a great job. You have probably encountered many great and no-so-great leaders, so use your experiences to guide the way you choose to lead. The golden rule applies to leadership too – you should lead in the way you want to be led!

Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in GlamourFast Company and the Huffington Post.

After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.


Paige Kassalen

Paige Kassalen has an electrical engineering degree from Virginia Tech and a Master of Information Systems Management from Carnegie Mellon. Kassalen began her career as the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Teen Vogue, and Fast Company. Since Solar Impulse, Kassalen worked in the manufacturing and finance industries to create implementation strategies for a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. She was the Chief Operating Officer at CrowdAI, a start-up named by Forbes as one of the most promising AI companies in 2021. CrowdAI was acquired by Saab, Inc. in 2023, and Kassalen now serves as the Chief of Staff for the strategy division.

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